10 Signs of a Problem with Perfectionism
When good enough isn't good enough.
Posted September 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- Perfectionism is not about striving for excellence but striving for the impossible, unattainable, and ultimately, unachievable.
- Perfectionism increases the risk of health issues including eating disorders, anxiety disorders, pathological worry, and premature death.
- Signs of perfectionism include negative self-talk, comparing oneself to others, and spending excessive time trying to achieve personal goals.
It's not uncommon to hear people pridefully claim that they're perfectionists. "I can't help it; I'm a perfectionist!" It is no surprise that we all get pleasure out of doing things well. It makes us feel unique or "special." But when is being "too good" a bad thing?
Perfectionism is not about striving for excellence but striving for the impossible, unattainable, and ultimately, the unachievable. The truth is perfectionists play a losing game. The generally accepted definition of perfectionism is a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable. However, the author of The Gift of Imperfection, Brene Brown, defines the trait best: "Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is 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. It's a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from flight."
Bravo Brene and take that, Merriam-Webster. I would add that not only does it prevent us from "taking flight," but it shackles us to a laundry list of other mental health issues and disorders as we constantly pursue the phantom that is perfection.
Perfectionism and Mental Health
The chronic disappointment that results from perfectionism is exhausting, but it also puts us at risk for a myriad of other mental and physical health issues. Perfectionism has been found to increase risk for, and contribute to, the maintenance of eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression, poor physical health, premature death, pathological worry, and generalized anxiety disorder, and sadly, even suicidal ideation. Pioneers of perfectionism research even state that perfectionism can cause physical consequences such as fatigue, muscle tension, insomnia, and a tight chest.
Many people are under the misconception that if they are not perfectionists in all areas of their lives, they are not struggling with perfectionism. To the contrary, perfectionism can pop up in one area of your life and still cause enough distress to derail your mental well-being.
- Close relationships (family, partner, friends)
- Physical appearance
- Health and fitness
10 Signs You May Have a Problem with Perfectionism
1. Self-Criticism. Does the negative self-talk never seem to stop? Do you blame yourself for every situation? "I should have known better." "I'm so overweight." "How could I be so stupid?" "It's all my fault." "My hair is a mess." "I don't spend enough time with my friends." Do you mistakenly believe that beating yourself up is going to motivate you to do better? Achieve more? These toxic inner rumblings of your internal self-critic will only serve as the direct route to the downward spiral that is depression.
2. You Hold Yourself to a Different Standard. Do you hold yourself to a different set of expectations, rules, and standards than other people in your life? If your loved one made the same mistake, would it be "understandable"? If you were to imagine doing the same, would it be cataclysmic? No matter what you achieve or attain, is it never good enough?
3. Your Self-Worth Is Based on Achievements and Performance. Do you often equate mediocrity with inferiority? If you're not valedictorian, employee of the month (all 12 months of the year), CEO by 25, captain of the team, or accepted into an Ivy league, are you a total failure?
4. In a State of Constant Comparison to Others. Do you consistently catch yourself comparing your grades, home, car, material items, physical appearance, or job to other people? Comparison is the thief of joy. This practice is a one-way ticket to tumbling self-esteem.
5. You're a Perpetual Procrastinator. Does the fear of making one mistake prevent you from even starting? If you can't do it perfectly, why even bother, right? Is it challenging to meet deadlines or get yourself to sit down and begin? Does the thought of not being able to get the work done effortlessly terrify you? If so, perfectionism is at play.
6. It Takes You a Ton of Time to Finish Things. Do you spend an exorbitant amount of time on a project or task that should take 15 minutes? Ever excessively check emails, homework, papers for spelling mistakes? What about trying to improve things by redoing them, once, twice, ehh… maybe third times the charm?
7. You Have a Very Hard Time Relaxing. Even when you've finally crossed off task number 452 of the day from your color-coded, daily planner, do you still feel guilty or restless when it's time to put the pen down?
8. Excessive Time Spent on Achieving Personal Goals. Friends, family, or partners give up on asking you to spend time together because they know the answer is "I can't, I have work to do tonight." One of the tell-tale signs your perfectionism is pathological is that the long hours put in toward your goals inevitably start pulling you away from what you love.
9. Persistent Thoughts of "Not Being Good Enough." Not smart enough, athletic enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, ambitious enough? Unfortunately, these maladaptive beliefs stem from childhood experiences with family members, coaches, peers, teachers, etc. They consequently serve as the fuel that maintains perfectionism. It's best to reach out to a mental health professional to address and heal them once and for all.
10. It's Always "All or Nothing." If you received a 95 and not a 100 on an exam, would you dwell on the "catastrophe" for hours? Maybe even days? Even though 95 and 100 equate to the same letter grade? This extreme style of thinking (often associated with depressive thinking) is frequently responsible for determining whether or not you're a total success or a total failure when struggling with perfectionism. It's important to remember that life generally does not operate in absolutes. People are seldom "always this" or "never that." Situations are rarely perfect or a complete disaster.
If your child or someone else you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. Visit Psychology Today's Therapist Directory to find a mental health professional near you.
Martin, S. (2019). CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance. New Harbinger Publications.