Sometimes patients tell me, “I can’t be a perfectionist, because nothing in my life is perfect.” But being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it's about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be “right.” But even when the brief satisfaction of “right” is achieved, it’s temporary. Then it’s on the next level, achievement, or day of needing to make everything “right.” Most perfectionists smile beautifully on the outside but feel frustrated, exhausted, and unappreciated on the inside.
Here are some hallmarks of a perfectionist belief system:
- As a person, you are not okay as you are.
- No matter what you achieve, the feelings of satisfaction are temporary. There is always more to do, be, accomplish.
- Things are either black or white — no vaguely defined area that's in between or close enough. Things in your life are either right or wrong, good or bad success or failure.
- You believe that only by making everything perfect on the outside will you feel peace and serenity on the inside.
- If you continually achieve, acquire, and look good doing it, you will be successful and happy.
- When things go wrong or you do not achieve at a certain level, you have failed.
- Effort and intention are not enough. Results must be productive and successful. Focus is on product, not process.
- You are extremely competitive about almost everything.
- You feel secretly judgmental of people who fall short of perfection.
- You imagine others admire and value you only for your high level of achievement and production.
It seems like being a perfectionist should lead to perfection, but so often the opposite is true. Rather than the success and serenity that the perfectionist pictures, here are just a few of the difficulties that plague the perfectionist.
1. Trouble in Relationships
It’s very difficult to be in a romantic relationship with a perfectionist. Their expectations and demands are extremely high, and their partners often feel inadequate and pressured. In relationships, perfectionists often feel disappointed, angry, and resentful. In friendships, they will always go out of their way to be supportive and gracious, but they also can be competitive, rigid, and very passive-aggressive.
2. Always Anxious and Exhausted
The perfectionist lives with continuous anxiety about what needs to be accomplished. Unfortunately, the perfectionist's response to anxiety is to work harder and accomplish more and more and more. This leaves them exhausted and miserable most of the time.
3. A Deeper Sense of Shame
The perfectionist is usually very intolerant of mess and disorganization. They believe that if they can make their outside environment look a certain way, that means that everything is good and safe on the inside. This is often an attempt to get away from deeper internal feelings of toxic shame. These are the feelings inside of them that are more messy, painful, and disorganized—the feelings that are difficult to articulate, define, or resolve immediately.
4. Earning Your Specialness
A perfectionist's core internal belief tends to be they are not good enough or special the way they are. They believe their value comes from perfect production, achievement, and service in every aspect of their life. When one feels like they have to constantly earn their place as “good” in the world, it means living with a deeper sense that you don’t deserve to just exist and be loved for who you are.
The key point is that perfectionism grows from a point of feeling not only imperfect but deeply flawed and therefore, unlovable. If you have to constantly re-earn or re-prove your worth—even if it’s to yourself—you are running on a never-ending treadmill of external achievements that will not bring you a joy that lasts. The thing to always keep in mind is that true internal acceptance and peace does not come from changing what is outside of you. Remember lasting change always entails shifting and understanding what’s inside of you. You will never hustle your way into self-love.