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How Do You Know If Your Perfectionism Is Destructive?

What happens when you recognize the prison of your perfectionism.

Denny Müller on Unsplash
The prison of destructive perfectionism
Source: Denny Müller on Unsplash

A story reached me recently — a story that made me stop breathing for a moment.

Rebecca, a highly successful-looking, happy-looking, engaged-looking mother of two, suddenly and mysteriously took her own life. Her devastated friends and family were looking for clues as no one had known she was anywhere near that kind of despair. Her husband found my book, Perfectly Hidden Depression, on her nightstand.

My eyes filled with tears and for a second, a knot in my throat kept me from speaking. Two of those friends had reached out to me, trying to find answers. As I listened, I felt a strange mixture of horror and hope, deep sadness, yet even stronger determination.

I don't want there to be more stories like Rebecca's. This overlooked presentation of depression — one that doesn't meet the required clinical depressive criteria (at least on the surface) — not only exists but may likely be one of the reasons why the suicide rate is increasing. Because too many people are feeling too much pressure while trying to meet too many expectations, both internal and external. They are lonely and exhausted.

Constructive versus destructive perfectionism

Perfectionism isn't a bad trait in and of itself. But there's more than one type of perfectionism — and there's one that can be deadly.

Constructive perfectionism is striving for excellence yet remaining process-oriented. It's the swimmer who wants to beat their best time. Or the lawyer who's known for approaching each case carefully, or the parent who works hard at tuning into their child's needs and talents. You can accept that you're going to learn from your mistakes, have pride in what you do, and can work through guilt or remorse when things don't go well.

Destructive perfectionism is all about the goal, the prize, the end product. There's no stumbling allowed; no hesitation or lapse into allowing vulnerability to show. All too often, inner voices of shame and fear goad you into action, whispering that you're not enough, that you'll end failing. So you push more. You have to hide any perception of weakness or confusion. And you constantly focus on meeting and exceeding the expectations of others. But a vicious cycle is formed — for there's always the next expectation. And then the next.

It's incredible to watch someone realize what a prison their destructive perfectionism has become. They can come to realize how it's seeped into all aspects of what they do, how they make decisions, what rules need to be rigidly followed, or what they allow themselves to express or not express.

Two stories of healing from destructive perfectionism

Richard comes to mind immediately, who revealed, smilingly, that he couldn’t remember the last time he'd cried, not even when his mother died. He struggled with shame over that, blaming himself for seeming callous. Yet she'd never told him she loved him or what he’d meant to her. In their family, feelings weren't discussed, although somehow, he had felt loved. Dry-eyed, but allowing a tiny bit of vulnerability to show, he softly said, "I never got to tell her goodbye."

So I gently challenged him. The next time he was alone, I suggested that he invite himself to either think about or actually write down what he might’ve wanted to say. He returned the next session, proudly stating, “I did my homework.” Richard began to explain the wonder that he'd experienced as he sat quietly on a plane, and allowed a tear to slip down his cheek as he reimagined and wrote about his last visit with his mom. But this time, he said his goodbye. He later quipped, “Just as amazing... was that, in full public view, I had a self-help book in my hand whose title included the word 'depression.' That would never have happened a few months ago."

Here's the other story. Last week, I was working with Sharon, also struggling with destructive perfectionism, who quite proudly told me that she’d introduced “downtime” in her highly regimented workout routine. She'd decided to always take off Wednesdays, as she'd read that her muscles needed the rest. I said that was really good progress — it was a step toward less rigidity. Then I asked her to consider a next step. Every morning, she could tune into herself, and ask, "How am I feeling? Would I like to take today off from working out?"

What followed was a parade of quickly changing emotions. First, she looked frightened and upset. The introduction of self-care, of not having strict rules to follow, was too much. But almost immediately, Sharon's face changed as she realized, "Wow, why did that upset me so much? I couldn't even imagine what that would be like..." And then, she began to tear up and for the first time since our work began, I could see and feel true sadness emanating from her. "Where did I learn that I couldn't — in fact must not — consider my own needs?"

In destructive perfectionism, included in the syndrome of perfectly hidden depression, not only are others not allowed to see your vulnerability, but your awareness of your own emotional needs can be very limited. That takes internal self-care: checking in with yourself about what you feel or don't feel, what you need or don't need.

Richard and Sharon are doing that hard work of recognizing how their perfectionism has become a prison. Rebecca, it would seem, was searching for the way out. But it was too late.

If you see yourself in their stories, know that there is an exit. You can learn to accept and even welcome your own vulnerability. And find your way to more freedom.

If you wonder where you might stand on the spectrum of perfectionism, click here for a questionnaire. (This questionnaire has not been empirically validated and should not be used for diagnostic purposes.)

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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