Your Field Guide to the Perfectionist

Wanting everything in your life to be perfect can produce just the opposite.

Posted Aug 12, 2015

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

While many elite athletes, successful entrepreneurs, and groundbreaking researchers have some perfectionist tendencies, their drive for excellence doesn't hold them back. Some psychologists describe these high achievers as "adaptive perfectionists," although other researchers insist these outliers aren't true perfectionists.

True perfectionists—also called maladaptive perfectionists—actually struggle to succeed. Their need for perfection hinders their performance and prevents them from ever feeling "good enough."

Here are 9 signs that your healthy drive for excellence has crossed over into an unhealthy need for perfection:

1. You View Mistakes as Proof You are Inadequate

Rather than seeing mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, perfectionists view mistakes as proof that they're not good enough. They often respond to blunders with harsh self-criticism and minor mishaps, leaving them feeling defeated.

2. You Can't Celebrate Your Success

Perfectionists don’t feel comfortable declaring victory, no matter how successful they’ve become. Rather than acknowledge their talent, they may chalk up achievements to luck. At other times, they criticize themselves by saying things like, "I should have reached my goal faster," or, "If I were smarter I wouldn't have had to work so hard."

3. Your Self-Worth Depends on Your Achievement

Perfectionists don't feel good about who they are, and so their self-worth rests solely on what they do and how much they accomplish. Since they never really feel successful, they almost always lack self-confidence.

4. You Demand Perfection from Others

True perfectionists don't just expect perfection from themselves; they also expect those around them to perform at unrealistic levels. Their unrealistically high standards and excessively critical feedback wreak havoc on their relationships.

5. Your Mental Health Suffers

Perfectionism is associated with a variety of mental health issues, ranging from obsessive-compulsive disorder to eating disorders to depression. Studies have also citied perfectionism as one risk factor for suicide.

6. You Avoid Doing Things at Which You May Fail

Perfectionists aren't interested in personal growth. They're concerned with showing off their current skills, rather than learning new ones. They tend to choose less-challenging activities at which they're more likely to succeed, rather than explore new opportunities at which they may struggle.

7. You Aren't Satisfied with Your Life

An intense fear of failure, and anxiety over the future, prevent perfectionists from ever feeling truly satisfied with their lives. Research shows that perfectionists often do well in low-stress environments, but everyday hassles and stressful life events can take a serious toll on their life satisfaction.

8. You Take a Long Time to Complete Tasks

Driven people are hard workers who complete tasks efficiently, but true perfectionists struggle to get anything done. Whether they're re-writing an email a dozen times to make sure it's perfect, or rehearsing a sales pitch so many times they miss a deadline, their efforts to be perfect impair their productivity.

9. You Invest a Lot of Energy in Masking Your Imperfections

True perfectionists invest a lot of energy into masking their flaws. They worry about being harshly judged by others, and in an effort to escape that judgment, work hard to keep up the appearance of perfection.

Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, keynote speaker, and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, a bestselling book that is being translated into more than 20 languages. 

To learn more about the story behind Amy's book, watch this video