If you’re a perfectionist, you’ve probably had this thought flit across your mind. “What’s wrong with being a perfectionist? It means I get things done the right way.” And you are partially correct. But as we’ll discover in this blog post, being a perfectionist can actually make it harder to both do things and do them right. Perfectionists tend to work hard, have very rigid expectations, and be driven and organized. But anxiety can start to creep in as the goalposts get moved for every task and project that comes up. Thankfully, it is possible for the perfectionist to balance out their mindset, but it does take some work.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is often described as a character trait that involves a person striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards. It is often accompanied by critical self-evaluations and worries about other people’s evaluations, too. If you are a perfectionist, you likely seek that perfection in multiple areas of your life, from work and school to personal relationships and hobbies.
There are three different dimensions to perfectionism:
- Self-oriented perfectionism: Setting high standards for yourself and being overly critical when those standards are not met
- Other-oriented perfectionism: Imposing high standards on others and being critical of others when they don’t meet these standards.
- Socially-prescribed perfectionism: Believing that others have unrealistic expectations of you, leading to an intense desire to meet these perceived expectations.
Perfectionism is good and bad. It can push you to strive for bigger and better things, but it can also cause hyper-criticism, anxiety, and other problems in your personal life. To that end, I feel like the bad outweighs the good.
The downsides of being a perfectionist
Don’t get me wrong, striving for excellence is a great trait to have. However, if you are a perfectionist, you may strive for excellence to your own detriment. This can lead to a wealth of negative consequences for you and even the people around you. The most significant downsides of being a perfectionist are:
A paralyzing fear of failure
If you are a perfectionist, you likely equate mistakes with personal inadequacy, which can ultimately cause you to fear the very idea of failure. This is a central theme of perfectionism, and the fear can be so intense that it actually affects decision-making, goal-setting, and your overall approach to life.
This is obviously a problem for many reasons. Fearing failure keeps us from improving and causes us to freeze if we think failure is coming. It can also affect us socially if we fear failing in relationships or at events.
Procrastination usually stems from the fear of producing work or achieving a goal in a sub-optimal way. This is because perfectionists tend to set unrealistic expectations of themselves, and then the fear of failure causes them to freeze before they can accomplish the goal. This can also look like self-sabotage if the fear of failure is so great that you’re not sure if you can accomplish your goal to your standards.
It never ends
Your perfectionism leads you to establish almost unattainably high standards for yourself, causing you to remain dissatisfied with anything you do, even if you objectively did it fairly well. Even if you do achieve your goal, you could have done it better somehow, right? The goalposts always move, and once you know you can do something, you have to do that again, but better.
The thing is, if you did your absolute very best on a task, how could you possibly do it better the next time? You may be able to practice certain things, but will those practices also be held to your new standards? Will you be just as disappointed if the very next time you try a task you aren’t able to go above and beyond what you did last time?
Anxiety and depression
The pressure to perform can put undue strain on your mental health and cause you to develop anxiety and depression. The anxiety is caused by setting unachievable standards that you are constantly afraid of failing to meet. Rinse and repeat that situation enough times and you can develop an anxiety disorder.
Depression sets in when your overly critical self-talk does. You work as hard as you can, fail to achieve your impossibly high standards, and then beat yourself up for not being able to do it. You feel defeated and like you’ll never amount to anything, and this is not a great headspace to be in. Over time, it can lead to depression and even grief if you’re consistently unable to meet your own standards.
Perfectionism can extend beyond just you and cause you to critically judge others who also don’t live up to your unattainably high standards. You might create tension and resentment by holding others to different standards. You can resent that no one else is held to your standards, and the other person can resent being held to those standards, creating tension for both of you.
When “good enough” is better than “perfect”
Our modern world often glorifies perfection, but recognizing the value of “good enough” can be a real game-changer. As you start to work on accepting that things don’t need to meet your high standards, you’ll discover that they’re more achievable than you initially thought.
This can be a really, really difficult challenge to overcome on your own. It requires you to face yourself and really think critically about what you can and cannot do, and meet yourself at those standards. This is hard for many perfectionists, but it can be done.
My favorite method is the “all or something” technique. I often find myself just skipping tasks completely if I can’t do them to my standards. This can include anything from brushing my teeth to finishing my homework. Instead of “all or nothing” thinking, I swap to “all or something”. Something is better than nothing, and I’m already going into it with my standards lowered because I’m not expecting “all”. Sometimes I’m surprised with what I’m able to do, and sometimes I’m not. But I have accomplished something, and that’s the important part.
Breaking free from being a perfectionist
Pushing yourself to make your standards more flexible requires, again, work. There is no easy way out with perfectionism, and there will be plenty of days where you slip back into it, push yourself too hard, or feel defeated because you’re no longer meeting those impossible standards. But if you’re experiencing those things, it means you’re doing this right.
Steps to break free
- What are you capable of? Not what will you be capable of tomorrow, or next year after a ton of practice, but what are you capable of now? What were you capable of yesterday? What did you accomplish, and what did you leave unfinished?
- Lower it a bar: If you had outstanding tasks that you weren’t able to accomplish yesterday, it means you should be either tossing those tasks or lowering the bar on some of your other tasks. Instead of doing all the laundry, just do one or two loads. Instead of washing every dish in the house, collect them all in the sink and load the dishwasher. Get everything done to a lower standard before you come back and try to hit the higher standard.
- Examine your exhaustion levels: Are you experiencing burnout? Exhausted at the end of every day? Do you lack the energy to keep up with kids or your dog? This is another sign you might need to lower the bar a little. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any new or recent fatigue as well.
- Make more mistakes: This is the hardest part, but you can’t never make mistakes. The more you make, the better you’ll get at learning to accept them as a part of life. And when you make a mistake, it’s important to remind yourself that that is a learning opportunity, and not a personal failure. You only fail when you stop trying.
- Celebrate achievements: Finally, it’s important to see how far you really have come. Make a list of everything you’ve accomplished over the last month, year, or few years. It can be anything, from learning a new skill, to finally seeing the dentist, to getting a promotion. When you have a tangible measure of how far you’ve really come, you may feel some of the pressure to perform lift.
If perfectionism is affecting you to the point that you require guidance to start reframing those thoughts, I highly recommend therapy. A therapist will help you figure out where your perfectionism started and use techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help you acknowledge and overcome your fear of failure, desires to be loved and admired, or people-pleasing tendencies you may have.
If you’re interested in therapy, Modern Era Counseling is here to help. Our team of therapists are trained to help you overcome your perfectionist tendencies and life a more stress-free and integrated life. Give us a call at (704) 800-4436 or shoot us an email to get matched with a therapist today.