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Nine Little-Known Signs of Perfectionism

It's not about being perfect; it's about never being good enough.

Key points

  • "Perfectionist" is worn by some as a mark of pride, but the trait often comes with a significant cost.
  • Well-known perfectionists tend to display the trait externally through an obsession with details or a relentless, uncompromising nature.
  • But it's also possible for perfectionism to display itself more covertly.
  • Covert perfectionists may find themselves unable to relax, concentrate, or get anything done because they're preoccupied with a fear of failure.

Are you a perfectionist? Most perfectionists don’t identify as perfectionists. But these nine signs might make you come out of the (perfectly organized) perfectionist closet.

“It’s perfect!” While calling something “perfect” is the highest of compliments—a perfectly done steak, the perfect prom dress, a perfect 10 in the ice dancing finals—calling someone a perfectionist is anything but.

Why? It implies a stressed-out control freak who can’t relax. Perfectionists have a reputation for being relentless. Uncompromising. Never satisfied. And often, it turns out, very successful. Rolling Stone called Bruno Mars a “pop perfectionist.” Serena Williams proudly labels herself as a perfectionist. Steve Jobs was a notorious perfectionist.

All of these people—and likely some of the perfectionists you know (maybe even you)—are at the top of their professions, have made themselves rich and famous, and delivered great work along the way. But not without paying a price.

It’s the cost of perfectionism—anger, stress, abrasiveness, being seen as picky, rigid, or over-controlling—that makes most people shun the perfectionist label.

As a result, perfectionists seldom claim to be perfectionists. And further, because the label is a misnomer, most perfectionists don’t even realize they’re perfectionists.

How is it a misnomer? Contrary to the name, most perfectionists aren’t driven by the pursuit of perfection, they’re driven by the avoidance of failure. Being a perfectionist isn’t about being perfect, it’s about never being good enough.

Should you call yourself a perfectionist? Maybe. Some characteristics of perfectionism lead to excellence and success, like doing things well, thoroughly, or efficiently. Indeed, sweating the small stuff is an advantage when it comes to landing that promotion, creating a magazine-worthy holiday dinner, or organizing the garage with the intricacy of a game of Tetris.

So when does being a perfectionist become a hindrance? It can get in your way when you spend so much time polishing a project that it never actually gets done, get sucked so far into the details that you miss the point (or the deadline), or insist that the two sides to every argument are your way and the wrong way.

But there are also lesser-known signs of perfectionism. For starters, here are nine of them. Are you a *perfect* match? (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

1. You always look great.

Your outfit always looks pulled together; no chipped nail polish or two-day stubble for you. Plus, it’s not painful for others to look at you (every mother of a tween boy knows what I mean—“No, you cannot wear athletic shorts and Adidas slides to Uncle Al’s funeral!”)

Now, you might be the type of perfectionist whose focus isn’t about appearance—you might save your perfectionism for other domains. Steve Jobs reportedly wore a black turtleneck and Levi’s every day so he didn’t have to waste neurons on deciding what to wear.

However, carried to an extreme, being perfectionistic about appearance is a big risk factor for eating disorders. Anorexia is often deadly. And bulimia and binge eating can be cracks in a perfectionistic facade—all the pressure you put on yourself has to escape at some point, like through a binge on decidedly imperfect foods.

2. You don’t share your ideas until they’re “ready.”

Unlike the vintage Saturday Night Live cast, you prefer to hold onto your projects until they’re ready for prime time. The prospect of presenting something half-baked is as terrifying as going out half-naked. In brainstorming sessions at work, you marvel when colleagues spitball without being embarrassed. You wait to show your work until it’s too late to edit. You wish you could play it faster and looser, but it just doesn’t feel safe.

3. You live by lists.

Lists and calendars and schedules, oh my! You are organized and efficient. You schedule your day down to 15-minute increments. The upside? You wring the most out of your time. You’re productive and get things done effectively and well—nothing wrong with that at all.

But sometimes productivity isn’t the goal. With a laser focus on checking off to-dos, it can be hard to be flexible, to find time to spontaneously chit-chat, or to have those unscheduled run-ins and conversations that are not only fun, but also deepen your relationships and spark creativity.

4. It’s tough to relax.

Unplug, kick back, or take a breather? For many perfectionists, unstructured time just feels wrong—there’s something you could be getting done. You resent the hours it takes to watch an entire movie, read a whole book, or linger over a meal because you feel restless. You may leave your vacation time on the table because breaks interrupt your momentum. And holidays are the best time to get stuff done because no one else is around to bother you.

Likewise, you’ve tried, but you just can’t meditate. You’re not sure if you’re doing it right, and you hate to be bad at things, so that makes it stressful. Plus, just sitting there trying to be in the now makes you antsy—it feels like you’re wasting time.

5. You can only concentrate if everything is in its rightful place.

A neatly made bed. A crumb-free countertop. A clutter-free desk. It’s true that for some, outer order can equal inner calm. There’s nothing wrong with being neat and organized, but it can also be a hidden sign of perfectionism. Preferring outer order is fine if it’s not getting in your way, but check for these three things:

  • Does clearing clutter, cleaning, and organizing take so much time and energy it leaves you unable to do what you’re supposed to be doing?
  • Are you unable to transition away from cleaning, making you chronically late or stressed?
  • Or, is following your partner or kids around with a vacuum (and related criticism) straining your relationship?

6. You procrastinate.

On the surface, procrastination looks more like laziness or distractibility, not perfectionism. But look closer. If you’re worried there’s no way you can meet your own standards or that you’ll make the wrong decision and later regret it, it’s understandable that you put off writing that term paper, moving forward on home renovations, or plowing through your to-do list.

7. You do one of two things when it comes to decision-making.

These two decision-making methods live at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both are rooted in perfectionism.

The first: you take a long time to make a decision because you worry it won’t be right. You stand in your closet trying to decide what to wear while your whole family is waiting in the car, or you’re still staring at the menu while the waiter glances at his watch. You hate Costco and IKEA because too many choices make you feel paralyzed.

The second: you are very decisive; you are confident you know the “right” way. You automatically hire the “best” contractor, go to the “best” hairstylist, and only get macarons at the “best” bakery. If someone offers to bring a dish to supper, you send them a recipe or tell them exactly where to pick up the ingredients.

8. You can’t delegate.

Whatever “it” is, it’s better if you just do it yourself. If someone else does it (agh!), things never turn out the way you want and you’ll have to redo it anyway. When you do it yourself, things get done to your high standards, but as a result, everything takes longer and you’re exhausted from taking on so much.

9. You hate waste.

Abandoning a project makes you feel queasy—you’d rather fight through and make it right rather than have wasted the time. A full fridge makes you anxious because so much food has the potential to go to waste. You hate to leave miles or points on the table, even if it means ending up with a rewards subscription for socks (which is a thing, apparently). It’s difficult for you to walk away from sunk costs. On a more serious note, you may even stay in a bad relationship because of all the time and energy you’ve already invested in.

So what should you do if you said, “That’s me!” to any of the nine signs? What’s so bad about being organized, hardworking, and looking fabulous all the time?

Well, since you asked, here’s the line: Perfectionism works against you when your high standards and hard work are driven by fear. Work hard and aim high when you love what you’re doing and want it to be the best it can be. However, it’s another thing to become paralyzed or consumed due to fear of failure, making mistakes, or being judged or rejected.

To sum it up, pursue excellence for the sake of excellence, not to overcompensate, perform, or impress. Remember: Imperfect doesn’t mean inadequate. Indeed, some aspects of your perfectionism are likely propelling you forward. Keep those. But you can work on letting go wherever perfectionism is holding you back. (And maybe even resist making them into a list).

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