Perfectionism contributes to high stress and anxiety. There can be confusion sorting through what is high achieving vs perfectionism. The critical difference is that perfectionism is the need to achieve self-imposed, unreasonable or even unattainable objectives. Perfectionists suffer from a chronic feeling that it is “never enough.” This inner distress gets in the way of well- being and exacerbates anxiety. It keeps people coming from a place of scarcity emotionally rather than a place of resourcefulness and confidence. Perfectionists also rarely meet or exceed their own expectations because the goal post is constantly changing. Just when they are about to reach it, it becomes something else to strive for. Typically, these expectations are arbitrary goals set by the perfectionist and may not even be externally validated.
Here are some signs that you may be a perfectionist:
- Feel unsatisfied with life, as though it’s never enough. The constant feeling of striving for something else can be exhausting and depleting. This is a different feeling than the positive energy and motivation that can come with working towards a challenging goal.
- Highly self critical. Despite a win or a success, you focus on what could have been better. Perfectionists often take critical feedback hard and have a difficult time acknowledging and celebrating their own success.
- Engage in distorted thinking. Perfectionists often demonstrate black and white or all or nothing thinking. “I am bad because I had two snacks today.” “I’m two hours late on the project so what’s the point.”
- Seek approval from others. Perfectionists can become too dependent and even needy of external validation. They can show people pleasing characteristics, and if they do not receive affirmation and positive reinforcement from people around them, they can feel depleted.
- Low self esteem- Perfectionists may appear confident on the exterior, however they generally suffer from low self-esteem, because their sense of self worth comes from outside themselves, their achievements, accomplishments, etc.
- Procrastination. While perfectionists are often high achievers, they also tend to procrastinate. They may wait to turn an assignment in until they have over checked it to avoid possibility of error. They also may hold off from starting something until they feel fully prepared, knowledgeable, and expert, at a level that is not necessary for the task at hand.
- Use the word should. There can be power in linguistics, and even using language that includes “should” is guilt-inducing. It is the suggestion that whatever you thought you “should” do, you have already failed because you haven’t done it. It suggests you “should have,” which fuels anxiety rather than builds confidence.
- Fearful of failure. Perfectionists are anxious and concerned about experiencing failure, so they often protect themselves from being exposed to failing. They may become reluctant to speak up, take risks, or try new things.
- Intolerance of mistakes. Perfectionists are concerned with accuracy, quality, and can become overly focused on the possibility of error. They may be hard on themselves and others when they fall short. They can seem quite critical or nitpicky of others’ work.
- Sacrifice self care or wellbeing to reach a goal. Perfectionists may over compromise themselves at the cost of their own health. They may lose sleep or skip meals in pursuit the perceived perfection.
Perfectionism is often associated with experiencing a sense of control. In order to shift these behaviors, it is important for one to adapt their mindset. This process often involves letting go of unrealistic and unhealthy standards placed upon oneself. It also involves letting go of the need to entirely control the outcome. There are cognitive reframing techniques that can be learned to help people move into a healthier state of mind. In doing so, feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression can lift. Reducing perfectionistic tendencies will lead to a higher quality of life and increased confidence. If someone is experiencing extreme distress related to perfectionism, it is recommended to pursue help from a mental health professional.
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.