What's Wrong With Being a Perfectionist?
To a point, perfectionism can help us focus and do a job well; but, perfectionism can also stop us from trying in the first place
A fear of failure, high levels of self-criticism, procrastination and anxiety are common in perfectionists
If perfectionism is holding you back, find a therapist here
The word 'perfectionism' is used a lot. Whilst “you are such a perfectionist” is uttered in exasperation, “I’m such a perfectionist!” may be confessed with pride, humour, or self-depreciation. For some, perfectionism fuels inspiration and is a driving force that can spur excellence: Beyoncé and Adele are self-proclaimed perfectionists who have revealed their perfectionism as the driving force propelling some of their most notable performances.
Within a certain range, the visionary nature of perfectionism does bolster achievement. For others however, perfectionism is destructive; completely eroding their internal world, sense of self and how they navigate life. This type of perfectionism is limited and associated with high levels of psychological distress. It has the propensity to adversely affect one or many aspects of life, such as relationships, hobbies, leisure, social situations, study and appearance. Knowing the limiting consequences of perfectionism can help you work out if you are veering towards an unhelpful type of perfectionism.
The limiting type of perfectionism:
- Embodies an 'all-or-nothing' way of thinking:
If high standards aren’t attained, then there’s absolutely no point in trying. Perfectionists become fixated on the goal or achievement and overlook the process involved. There’s either success or failure and there’s no in-between. This absolute way of thinking is troublesome as it doesn’t allow for the wide spectrum of middle ground that exists in life; life is isn’t black and white, but full of many grey areas.
- Erodes self-esteem
Perfectionists base their sense of self-worth on their achievements. The phrase, “you are only as good as your last achievement” goes to the core of a perfectionist’s self-concept. When achievements aren’t attained then their value is diminished. Failing short of their standards serves to confirm beliefs of being not good enough, a failure, or worthless.
- Is highly critical
Perfectionists see shortcomings as failure and weakness and are acutely aware of imperfections; an unobtainable standard is the barometer of success. Perfectionists place high expectations on themselves and others and are critical when those standards aren’t met. Rigid words such as, 'should', 'must' and 'never' serve to fuel harsh judgements. Being critical can affect friends, family and colleagues, feeling judged and that they are walking on eggshells.
- Leads to procrastination
Because of their acute fear of being unable to complete a task perfectly, perfectionists delay starting or finishing tasks. They may have invested so much energy into a task that they collapse with exhaustion and then fear having to approach the task again. There’s a feeling of being stuck and immobilised alongside a cocktail of fear, anxiety, indecisiveness and worry. Mixed with ruminative thoughts of failure; a devastating vicious cycle of avoidance goes into overdrive.
- Is terrified of making mistakes
Mistakes are devastating for perfectionists, they confirm beliefs held about themselves, “It’s true that I’m a failure and not good enough because I got it wrong”. A fear of making mistakes is inhibiting, meaning that perfectionists avoid trying new things where there is a possibility of making mistakes. Consequently, important opportunities for growth and learning are denied. How can you learn if you are too afraid to see what happens?
To move away from limiting aspects of perfectionism:
1) Work towards embracing realistic standards
This means noticing when you are striving for unattainable goals and engaging in thought biases such as 'all-or-nothing' thinking. It can be useful to make a note of perfectionistic beliefs that you carry and consider them from alternative perspectives. For example, if you believe that perfectionism is necessary and helps you; consider, “Have there been any times where this hasn’t been the case?”, “What would I say to someone I care about who has this thought?” or, “What will I think about this in five years’ time?” Challenging helps gain a wider perspective and breaks down the structures that maintain perfectionism.
2) Plan and prioritise how you will pursue tasks
Break tasks down into smaller parts and work out what is possible within a certain amount of time. If tasks are difficult, they will need to be broken down into smaller pieces. Remember that time and energy are not infinite resources, balance is crucial. Too much time spent on one task may mean that other things suffer. Breaking tasks down into steps also helps individuals focus on the process and journey rather than the outcome.
3) Experiment with seeing what happens if you break your own rules
What actually happens? Perfectionists tend to make negative predictions about the outcomes of letting go of or adjusting their perfectionist behaviour. Experiments provide opportunity to objectively test what perfectionists believe will happen. By doing so there are opportunities for learning moving towards a less ridged way of viewing and pursuing tasks.
4) Reflect on what really matters to you
Sometimes things that people may think are important, really aren’t. Perfectionists are so caught up in pursuing goals that they overlook their values. Values are like a compass which guide us towards what really matters and makes life meaningful to us, they are unique to each individual. Not living in accordance with our values leads to suffering. Write a list of what your values are and consider whether you are moving towards and away from them. Reflect on how the impact that perfectionism has on your values.
Perfectionists are more able to see things flexibly and on less rigid grounds when they challenge what they do and how they think. Whether there is something wrong with being a perfectionist depends on what type of perfectionist you are. It's true that to a certain extent perfectionism can lead to great things, but as the proverbial phrase goes, “all in good measure”.
Ruth Parchment is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Cambridge