When Perfectionism Harms You or Your Relationships

How to recognize it and what to do about it.

Posted Feb 02, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Elise Bell/ IG @artbyelisebee, with permission
Source: Elise Bell/ IG @artbyelisebee, with permission

In over 25 years of clinical work, I don’t recall a single client arriving at a first session asking for help to overcome perfectionism. Most perfectionists see that trait as one of their strengths; it drives them to excel and be exceptional. It pushes them to meet their goals and live up to their standards. The constant striving for excellence is seen as a critical part of their identity. It is difficult for them to imagine being any other way and maintaining their self-esteem.

All too often, the reality is that perfectionism creates chronic stress, whether it is acknowledged or not. It is distinct from doing one’s personal best, or setting the bar high enough to create a healthy challenge. Those are admirable behaviors. “Adaptive perfectionism” is the term used for setting high goals, working hard to reach them, and being mentally focused upon success. The person who sets high goals and is able to tolerate mistakes or failures without harsh self-criticism might be called an adaptive perfectionist (although that term is somewhat misleading). For the purpose of this post, the focus is the maladaptive nature of perfectionism.

How to recognize when perfectionism is harmful

Perfectionism is maladaptive when it includes the need to be seen as flawless, to make no mistakes, and to live up to extremely high standards. Common behaviors of perfectionists are self-criticism and/or criticism of others. It often centers upon all-or-none thinking, such as “This must be perfect or it’s worthless!” For some perfectionists, the fear of failure is a constant threat and leads to procrastination as well as anxiety. Rather than having a focus on success, the focus tends to be on avoiding failure.

Most perfectionists do not choose these habits; they are driven toward them without intent and often without awareness of the effects upon themselves or others. They are more likely to be aware of the consequences, such as anxiety, frustration, or disappointment. A risk factor for perfectionism is having a history of trauma during early childhood. The following examples from past clinical experience show 2 different forms of perfectionism, each involving a history of trauma. (The names have been changed.)

2 examples of perfectionism

Self-oriented perfectionism. Jill is an intelligent and beautiful young woman with a need to be perfect in her own appearance, the cleanliness of her home, and the quality of her work. She has had a series of disappointing relationships in which she could not allow the other person to know her, out of fear that they would see her imperfections. Her need to maintain the appearance of perfection has caused her to maintain an emotional distance in relationships, which has caused more than one to dead-end. Jill has a history of childhood emotional neglect, and of sexual abuse during her teen years.

Other-oriented perfectionism. Jon is a successful engineer whose major complaint was the “laziness and sloppiness” of his wife. I had the privilege of working with both of them in marriage counseling and found her to be competent, patient, and generally content with her life, except for the constant criticism that she received from Jon. Just a few of his criticisms were about the way she loaded the dishwasher, the way she vacuumed, and the way she took the dog out for walks.  His criticisms were becoming increasingly angry and mean, leading her to consider separation. Jon’s childhood history involved a physically and verbally abusive father, whom Jon could never please.

While Jill primarily expected perfection of herself, Jon’s perfectionism was directed at his wife. These individuals represent 2 of the 3 forms of perfectionism—self-oriented perfectionism and other-oriented perfectionism. (A third form is the least likely to cause relationship problems but is difficult for the individual: socially prescribed perfectionism. This occurs when a person feels that others are always expecting perfection of them, regardless of what is actually happening.)

Both Jill and Jon were unhappy and frustrated with the status of their relationships and anxious about their futures. As it is for many others with perfectionistic traits, their first step was to understand how their behaviors and beliefs were causing more harm than good in their lives.

How to Cope with Perfectionism

Coping with perfectionism first requires recognizing how it plays out in your life. Consider how it’s affecting your own happiness or preventing you from reaching your goals. Although the consequences for relationships have been the focus of this article, the same questions can be asked in terms of career goals. Does the need for perfection cause you to procrastinate when given an assignment? Is the fear of failure keeping you from ever starting a project? Once you identify perfectionistic tendencies as part of the problem, the following steps may be helpful in coping.

  1. Motivate yourself to change by learning the benefits of not being perfectionistic. See Meg Selig’s post, “Nine Joys of Being Imperfect,” for excellent self-motivating thoughts about overcoming perfectionism. Among the benefits Selig points out are increased self-confidence and getting more enjoyment out of life.
  2. Recognize the fears which underlie perfectionism. You may be fearful of what would happen if you did not set such high standards. Would you become sloppy and careless at work?  Would your home become disorganized or unsafe?  This is part of the all-or-none thinking in perfectionism. It is highly doubtful that your behavior would shift to the other extreme, although this is a common fear.
  3. Practice self-compassion. A self-compassionate person can allow themselves to make a mistake and learn from it, rather than self-criticize. If you do recall trauma in your early life, know that your perfectionism is likely one result of that trauma. Give yourself permission to recognize what happened and recover from it. Get professional help for your recovery.
  4. Start to imagine “good-enough” outcomes for those times when a high standard cannot be met. It’s wonderful when the bar has been set high and is reached. This is not always possible, for a wide range of reasons: time constraints, need for rest, and other factors beyond your control. A good-enough outcome gets the job done, which is often more important than getting it done perfectly.
  5. Stop seeking quick results. Striving for self-improvement can be a healthy lifestyle, as long as it is success-oriented. Success is more likely over the long term, allowing for some trial and error. Shifting your high expectations toward longer-term outcomes is much more adaptive than expecting quick results.

In summary, many people take perfectionism to the level of being harmful and maladaptive. It is one thing to strive for excellence. It is a very different thing to accept nothing less than perfect. There are ways to cope with perfectionism when it interferes with your happiness, relationship satisfaction, or personal goals. You may be pleasantly surprised when you get to know the real you. As stated by Anna Quindlen, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

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