Discover what perfectionism actually is and how perfectionism can affect you
High expectations, inner (and outer) critics, and self-assessments seem to be as prolific as falling leaves and windy days especially this time of year. I am well past school days, but the Fall always seems like the beginning of the year for me, the time to get serious, begin evaluating. With the beginning of the school year, the opening of the fourth quarter in our businesses, the holidays upon us for some, and right around the corner for others, the year itself winding down, gearing up for the newness - a lot of expanding and contracting of hopes and ideas, planning... it seems like a great time to really feel into the idea of perfectionism, the pressure we put on ourselves, that we perceive is on us from the outside, from our roles, families, society… There’s a lot going on in this topic. We’re going to deep dive. Ready?
Nobody is perfect, and we all know it. But most of us are very conscientious, want to do our best and really desire to achieve excellence, especially in certain aspects of our lives. It could be in our bodies, or roles in work, relationships, parenting, our homes, appearance, you name it!
Striving for excellence is a good quality. It can lead to success and a deep satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment when we achieve those milestones. It can be very challenging when we don’t feel we are measuring up also. How do we strike that space of remembering that everything works best in moderation, including perfectionism. Where is that line? What are the true characteristics of perfectionism and the traits linked to perfectionism as a condition? How does being a perfectionist can affect your well-being? If we are truly invested in perfectionism, let’s perfect this trait so that it is working with us and for us. Let’s be perfect perfectionists!
What Is Perfectionism? Is it a Problem?
Since this is one of those terms that we toss around pretty easily, let’s get an official definition: Perfectionism is a personality trait associated with striving to be flawless and often involves being critical of imperfections (Flett & Hewitt, 2002).
I am a Virgo. I have always had a little discomfort with the word perfectionist because, as a Virgo, it has been used as a criticism. People as
k what my sign is and then say, oh, you’re a Virgo, and make that face. So automatically they assume I am going to be a critical type of perfectionist that is seldom happy and very exacting, in that picayune, judgmental way. They put this on me and I don’t feel I resonate with this. They make it a problem. I know this stereotype of being a perfectionist well, and it’s uncomfortable having to disprove it in some way, or not. You be you Virgos! I hear people use the term perfectionist when they want to dismiss themselves as being conscientious, detailed and it seems uncool and awkward, they are insecure about high performing, so they throw out - “I know, I’m a perfectionist.” almost with shame. To you, my sad Virgo heart says, I’m sorry you feel that way, please shine your spark brighter! No apology needed! Your focus is not a problem… Please read on to discern when and if it is a problem, actually.
Although perfectionism can be a healthy motivator in moderation in the way it calls our attention to such things like details and our sense of purpose, excessive perfectionism may cause stress and diminish the chances of success. We get so caught in the details that we spin and spin and don’t know when to release, or we get hyper invested and narrow, and no other ideas or paths are good because we are finessing such control. This is where we benefit from understanding the nitty gritty of project stress, and when things are going a bit off the rails. No worries, with a bit of skill development, practice and self-understanding it comes together and finding that zone of excellence minus the intensity is in reach! Ready? Of course, that’s why we’re here!
The ability to distinguish between healthy (adaptive) and unhealthy (maladaptive) perfectionism may help us understand whether we are helping or hurting ourselves
(and maybe even others! OOPS)
Let’s start by delving deeper into the components of perfectionism. Generally speaking, true perfectionism has two dimensions: perfectionist striving and perfectionist concerns.
Perfectionist striving is the pursuit of flawlessness and setting exacting, high standards
Perfectionist concerns is how we evaluate ourselves and our performance against those high standards
Perfectionist Striving is so exacting that it leaves no room for error or modifications on the way to the goal, so you can imagine that the Perfectionist Concerns is where all the self bashing comes in, no matter how well things came together. There will almost always be a hit list instead of a true feeling of satisfaction for a job well done - yeh but… It could even be quite cruel and intense.
It’s not always a bad thing to be a perfectionist or have these tendencies. A perfectionist typically strives for perfection and is simultaneously concerned about not meeting their expectations, regardless. Experts associate perfectionist striving with hopes for success, which can bring about positive outcomes, such as higher levels of performance and self-efficacy. See that key piece there… Hopes for success.
In contrast, perfectionist concerns are associated with fear of failure, which may cause worry and stress
Are you feeling this? Are the wheels turning and maybe even some reflection, memories of a bit of each over time? The balance between these two dimensions helps determine whether the perfectionism is adaptive (ex. Hope) or maladaptive (ex. Fear, Criticism).
Let’s go deeper. It’s good to understand this more. We are so casual about this term Perfectionist, so I really want to explore and share some skills for understanding the difference between striving and concerns - hope and fear! We all can relate with this.
What Is Maladaptive Perfectionism?
Maladaptive perfectionism is connected with heightened perfectionist concerns like one’s mind is stuck in a loop, listing, worrying, excessive preoccupation or ruminating over past mistakes - real or perceived. Sound familiar?
Doubts about actually achieving goals, fear of failing, imposter syndrome, and fear of letting others down, embarrassment, all of these and others give some idea of the struggle and true suffering that can play out. Oh gees. Who hasn’t experienced this?
These negative emotions may be especially high for things outside of our control. Where adaptive perfectionism can help achieve goals - (Hope, Possibilities!), maladaptive perfectionism can cause severe stress and anxiety (Fears, Spin!). If not managed, maladaptive perfectionism can hurt their chances of success directly or indirectly, and erode their self-esteem and confidence, during the process and also because the outcome becomes so challenged in perception or actuality to achieve or achieve well.
All-or-None Thinking: According to a perfectionist, everything can be categorized as either perfect or a failure. If they notice any mistakes—no matter how minuscule—they tend to see the whole thing as a letdown. There is often no convincing them otherwise.
Unrealistic Standards: Perfectionists may have extremely high standards. They might judge everything through the lens of these standards and almost everything is seen as imperfect.
Worry About Failure: Perfectionists strive for excellence and worry that they will fail to reach their goals. Moreover, due to their all-or-none thinking and unrealistic standards, it is often difficult for them to achieve their standard of perfection.
Tunnel Vision: When perfectionists are worried about failing at something, everything else may become insignificant, even relationships, self care, manners they value.
Focus on Outcomes: Perfectionists are focused on end results, they may disregard every successful aspect of the process if they fail to reach their end vision of the goals.
Excessive Criticism: Perfectionists tend to be highly critical of others due to their unreasonably high standards. The high criticism is likely going on within them as well.
Inability to Deal With Criticism: Perfectionists may struggle when criticized or offered insights, suggestions or help and become defensive instead of seeing it as an opportunity to improve or see other options.
Procrastination and Avoidance: Perfectionists may procrastinate if they don’t feel entirely ready to produce the perfect result they would be satisfied with. Similarly, learning new skills or improving existing ones may be frustrating if they don’t achieve mastery and perfection quickly. They may give up such pursuits early on and avoid specific tasks due to excessive fear of failure. This can mask a perfectionist as something else, like an under-performer, disorganized, lazy, and these may be consequences of a paralyzing experience with perfectionism anxieties, not traits.
How Does Perfectionism Affect Well-Being?
Adaptive perfectionism can help people feel successful and fulfilled, achieving, enjoying milestones and possibilities. However, maladaptive perfectionism may do more harm than good. Why? As we’ve noticed, excessive perfectionism involves holding yourself to unreasonably high standards at all times. This constant effort for excellence can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, chronic stress is associated with a cascade of adverse health outcomes and social consequences, including high blood pressure, increased resting heart rate, digestive problems, appetite changes, inflammation, and a weakened immune system, and more!
It can also cause other problems such as irritability, withdrawal, fatigue, insomnia, emotional outbursts, and loss of libido, relationship troubles, excessive behaviors, anxiety. In addition to these effects, excessive perfection may also cause people to feel unsatisfied with how their lives have turned out. These perfectionists may even feel depressed after repeatedly failing to meet their own expectations and their relationships. work environments may also face challenges. We may all have experienced some of this in some areas of our lives at some time. We may have found direct or indirect strategies to loosen the grip on this through self reflection, relationship feedback and support, counseling, spiritual practices, for example.
Adaptive perfectionism can sometimes boost us as higher achievers. That’s pretty great. I would say many of us are naturally high achievers and would struggle to say exactly what that means. You mean, I strive to do a good, thorough job? To be a good person of integrity? YEs, all of this and more. Terrific! You know what matters and seek to improve while keeping a good sense of self and purpose through many areas of your life!
Unfortunately, maladaptive perfectionism can take over our lives and make us anxious and miserable and can be a challenge to release or transmute into a more adaptive pattern. Can you become easy going? Sure. Luckily, it is something we can unlearn with self-care, kindness and practice. Here are some suggestions that may be helpful:
Setting attainable standards. You might want to question whether your standards are attainable. If your standards are too high, it may be impossible to reach them. Try setting smaller goals and pausing to recognize the steps along the way to get there. When we do laundry, for example, there are many steps. Generally, we gather, sort, wash, dry, fold, put away. * some even have more steps! Some people don’t value putting them away, they are content having them clean and taking from the basket. For them, laundry is done once it’s clean and in the basket. They are satisfied. They may not have realized all the steps and their true motivation in the steps. They may see only the whole task - Laundry. Pass Fail. It’s not done if it’s not put away, so they feel bad, lazy, like slobs if the clothes never make it from the basket to the drawers. If they stop and think, actually, they not only did the laundry, but 6 other household tasks, washed the dog, had a phone call, managed other people and house needs, fell asleep in the chair for 15 minutes, prepped for work, while the laundry was being done. By the time the laundry was clean and folded in the basket, it was a big accomplishment. No one was lazy. The priority within your truth was to have clean clothes before the work week started. The pressure comes from somewhere else that it’s a pass fail if it’s not done all the way. That’s a general example for looking at a wider view to bust up the tunnel vision, pass fail that can come with perfectionism.
Setting realistic goals. Aiming high is great as long as your goals are achievable. Many of us make lists. How many things are on your lists? Do your lists have lists? We can only accomplish 1-3 larger things a day and a few smaller and 1-2 medium things if we’re lucky most days. What’s on your list? What are the steps of the things on the list? See the first point again about setting standards as you consider the story of your goals - what’s involved in each of these goals and how do you actually feel about it? What is your day realistically like when you factor in what you don’t always have control over, which brings us to…
Be flexible. Learning to be more flexible allows you to adapt to whatever life throws at you and adjust your goals and expectations accordingly. A neighbor pops by and wants to chat longer than expected. Your dryer stops working. Someone does things differently than you expected it to be done…is it wrong? Or still good but different… I don’t know. Stuff. Life is lifey. Does this mean that you are doomed, everything is yucky cackah poohey, ruined? Nah. Maybe for a short little bit. But then we shake it off. Maybe it was a good thing and we wouldn’t have notice if we stayed in our heads about it. You know those times we’re looking at our phone and everyone else sees the very cool hawk but you missed it? Shake it off. Be in the moment. The buddhists in most monasteries ring a bell for just about anything. When everyone hears the bell, they know what the different bells signify. They are to stop whatever they are doing, mid stitch, mid dig, and do whatever the bell signifies, Why? not to be religious and dutiful, but as part of their spiritual practice of impermanence, It reminds them that we are all fragile. Life is fragile, There is nothing we are doing that is actually so important most of the time, that it requires the amount of stress we put into it. They say, no one is more important than anyone else, so no one needs to wait for someone to finish a stitch. It will still be there. When the final bell rings, we will be ready to accept the impermanence of life and be in right relationship with our community and our selves, being individuals and inter being so that there is a reminder of equality, peaceful respect. Interesting, right? It gives pause to all the things we believe so passionately are so important that they cannot go on without us specifically. We all have value of course, but no ones value is more valuable than another’s. hmmm…
Reframe the way you perceive mistakes. Mistakes and mishaps can, will, and do happen no matter how careful and well-prepared anyone is or how hard anyone works. How can these mistakes or mishaps be reframed as learning or growth opportunities, as if you were an outside observer? How would you like to be cared for when such a thing happens? Can you treat yourself in this way?
Get help. Sometimes we just can’t change our behaviors alone and need help. For instance, you might benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy, which may help you identify and change any negative behaviors or thought patterns associated with perfectionism. It can also help you regulate any negative or destructive thoughts and emotions caused by maladaptive perfectionism. That’s a lot of terminology. That would be an example of what you might ask for if you would like to meet with a traditional therapist.
What do we think?
Let’s face it; we can’t always be perfect. Adaptive perfectionism can give us the push to achieve the best we can. Yet, when we set unattainable goals and high standards that we can’t achieve, we might become trapped in a vicious cycle of maladaptive perfectionism and start to feel anxious, get mean inside ourselves, and lose our self-confidence. (when we do this, as the another line of questions, it is an invitation to the true self - to the story under the story - why do this at all? What are we REALLY wanting to talk about within ourselves? I believe this outbalanced perfectionism really has nothing at all to do with the striving we have made so disproportionate and unattainable. I believe it is a callout for a more meaningful inner conversation that our mind, body, spirit self is inviting us to have, to bring us home to our core true selves. We learn to ask, What else is true? That will take a bit of extra care and curiosity.
In the mean time, there are ways to be compassionate with your out of balance perfectionism. We can all prevent excessive perfectionism from taking the joy out of our achievements. We can find a curiosity and contentment, some level of acceptance with who we are, imperfections and all. ha… there’s a little play on words there, did you catch that?
What really is perfection and imperfection? Where do we get these ideas and standards from? Maybe spend some time asking these questions if you find yourself caught in a loop. Who is this? Who am I really? What evidence of successes, love, joy, hope, happiness are in my life? Take 10 and go outside. There’s something to be said for getting some clear air.
If I can be of support to you or someone you love, with therapeutic coaching, now that you have a clear understanding between street jargon and where you or someone you care for may be in perfectionism loops, where an inner aspect may be asking for a new conversation, then let’s set up a session. You can contact me directly to set up a time and we will go from there.
I am also excited to share with you a new tool that is a great fit for this curious self discovery - the What Else is True? Your Inner Wisdom Deck and also the Companion Journals+ that are coming soon - pre-orders opening in late October/early November - get in the know here for the early bird offers and be the firsts:
As always, I look forward to your comments, emails, and I am here to support you in your path to clarity, discovery, healing, growth. Email me directly or visit my site.
May all beings be in peace.
Ama la vita d’altro,
Rev. Dr. Birdi Sinclair
Interfaith Spiritual Care and Counseling
Wholeness Arts Specialist and Creator
“Begin Peace now. Each now is new.”
Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 5–31). American Psychological Association.