If you are a high-achieving person, you may see your strong work ethic and determinedness as pivotal to your achievements. If you are ever anything short of exceptional, it can feel like a personal failure—one you assume came about because you just didn’t try hard enough. But while this may be true sometimes, it more often isn’t.
For many people, there is something in the fabric of how they approach problems, projects, and relationships that sets them up to fail, holds them back from ever starting, or leaves them feeling utterly depleted: perfectionism. The tentacles of perfectionism are versatile and far-reaching. In fact, some people actually idealize perfectionism as a personality trait—that is how seductive it can be. What could be wrong with striving to be perfect? But the narratives that perfectionism spins are those of a con-artist or a wolf in sheep's clothing. Perfectionism masquerades itself as a positive strategy when in reality, it is a corrosive process of self-sabotage.
As Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, discusses in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, there are clear distinctions between perfectionism and a healthy striving toward the things that matter to us. Brown describes perfectionism as “the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield.” She notes that according to research, “perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
So, what exactly is perfectionism—and how do you know if you are a perfectionist as opposed to one of those “healthy striving” people? Good question. It’s also a potential thought trap, because the two categories are not necessarily entirely distinct from one another; rather, they are different parts of a single continuum that any one of us falls on at any given point in time.
Here are some possible instances of when perfectionism—as opposed to healthy striving—has taken over in an unhelpful or damaging way:
- Negative self-talk: You are extremely hard on yourself whenever you make a mistake, even if you are learning something new. Even if whatever happens was totally out of your control, you end up blaming yourself, as if you could have prevented it.
- Avoidance: It needs to be just right, so it feels daunting to get started—it’s a lot of pressure. If you procrastinate, this can create unnecessary stress and hinder your performance. Another way avoidance can manifest is if you find yourself holding back: If it feels like an idea needs to be perfectly polished before you can share it, you may miss important opportunities to speak up.
- Preoccupation with minutiae: When you do tackle the task at hand, you get a little (or a lot) obsessive over getting it right, down to every last detail. This may manifest when you are working on something big, or it could take over when you are sending a casual email or shopping for something online. While you may believe that this is just the amount of effort it takes to get things done, you may find that you are allocating a disproportionate amount of time to menial tasks, which can take a toll on other areas of your life.
- Perfectionism permeates (and strains) your relationships: This can show up in a number of different ways. Perfectionism can be more internally focused—marked by a pressure to be the perfect partner. In this case, any real or perceived misstep may lead you to feel utterly inadequate. Over time, a fear of showing your true (imperfect) self to your partner can seriously dampen your communication, connection, and trust. On the other hand, perfectionism may also be more externally focused. In the latter case, you may be overly focused on finding the perfect partner and have rigid expectations that others can’t ever seem to meet.
- A propensity for “all or nothing” thinking: Otherwise known as splitting, this is a tendency to view situations in all good or all bad extremes. One example of this could be your relationship to eating and/or exercise: You may go on a restrictive diet or aim to eat “clean”—until one cookie from the break room makes you flip to the other extreme. Another example could be that you vacillate between periods of time when you don’t miss a single workout (and feel really good about that) and those when you abandon the gym/trail/yoga mat entirely (and feel like a failure) until you can have a “reset” and start “fresh.”
- Shying away from new experiences: If it feels extremely important to be excellent at everything you do, it makes it very hard to try anything new or anything you are not good at (yet). This manifestation of a fear of failure can keep your world a lot smaller than it has to be.
- Letting go of control puts you in a tailspin: If I want it done right, I have to do it myself. Sound familiar? The more often that way of thinking takes over, the more often you will find yourself doing all the things, all the time. After a while, this becomes unsustainable and you end up feeling exhausted and resentful.
- Quieting your mind is a no-go: There is always so much to do, and it feels important to optimize all of the time that you have. Resting feels like wasted time. And meditation? Forget it. Not only does it feel like you are not being productive, but you also don’t know if you are doing it right (see #6). You might say meditating makes you feel even more stressed out. Yikes.
Paradoxically, perfectionism can both feel very rewarding at times and have some deep-rooted sabotaging effects. If you feel that any of these 8 things are impacting the quality of your relationships, your sense of balance and happiness, or otherwise taking over your life, it may be time to take a closer look and renegotiate your approach.
Suggestions for further reading:
- My latest article takes on Perfectionism in the Time of COVID-19.
- For my take on how to reframe perfectionistic thinking, please see my article Redefining “Good Enough.”
- To hear more from Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, check out her book The Gifts of Imperfection.
- In this article, Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D. explores the ways that perfectionism can affect your sex life.