The Perils of Perfectionism

By Chad A. Buck, Ph.D.

wlcPerilsofPerfectionism2.jpgTo have high standards or expectations is not in itself a bad quality. It can give a person drive, motivation, determination, and focus. Perfection, however, is not so much about having high standards and expectations as it is about managing fears of losing, failing, or disappointing one’s self or others. When the conscious or subconscious feelings associated with perfection are fear-based, the results can be far from perfect.

What are the effects of perfectionism?

Perfectionists tend to judge themselves constantly and experience anticipatory anxiety around making mistakes for fear of falling short of self-imposed standards. The intensity of the judgment can result in various negative outcomes, such as confusion and indecisiveness, irritability, lack of focus, low mood, social anxiety, and panic. The possibility of making a mistake or wrong move seems catastrophic and often leads to procrastination and avoidance. Interestingly, if you procrastinate and/or avoid, you are significantly more likely to lose, fail, or disappoint. Relationships, both personal and professional, can become strained due to intolerance of mistakes, discomfort with different approaches, negativity, and inability to communicate thoughts and feelings in a genuine way. Given these possible effects of a perfectionistic thinking style, it is easy to see how perfectionism has been found to correlate strongly with anger problems, shyness, depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

Why do people become perfectionists?

This is not where we try to blame our parents or our upbringing for everything we do. Instead, it is important to consider that we are constantly evaluated and corrected from a very early age. When we start to talk, our parents or caregivers, understandably, correct our pronunciation. When we learn to color in a coloring book, eventually we are expected to color within the lines. We gain approval through our behavior. If the behavior is not optimal, then we are punished. If we are rewarded for a behavior then we tend to seek out more rewards. The demand to meet or exceed demands continues throughout adulthood. For some, approval of parents, family members, potential romantic partners, teachers, mentors, employers, and most everyone else is a primary motivator for making ourselves better, stronger, smarter, prettier, healthier, etc. Even when there are no external sources of pressure to perform or to achieve at a high level, people can set unrealistic standards for themselves based on comparison with others’ perceived success. The thing is, we compare ourselves to others only seeing the external without any idea of what lies beneath the surface. Another form of internal pressure to be perfect is when perfection is considered to be required to attain or keep love, respect, and safety. Perfectionism lends a false sense of control over our world and our relationships. It often leads to high praise from peers, higher social status, and higher position in life. Ultimately, the costs of perfectionism outweigh the benefits.

How can I become less perfectionistic?

The truth is that you cannot just walk up to a perfectionistic person and yell, “Stop it!” Perfectionism is a well-practiced and long-standing approach to life, typically. It’s an adaptation that has created a perception of safety, comfort, predictability, and, most often, real success. The following steps will help to curtail perfectionistic tendencies and hopefully result in a more fulfilling and less stressful life.

1. Know the difference between a desire to improve versus a desire for perfection. People who do not set standards tend to achieve less. Wanting to improve your grades, your job performance, your relationships, your health, or other parts of your life is a good thing. The problem is when you make a mistake or fall short of a goal and then proceed to beat yourself up, feel like a failure, or give up entirely. That is perfectionism.

2. Evaluate how perfectionism affects your relationships.  Do you tend to feel unsatisfied in most of your relationships? Are you comparing your partners to other peoples’ partners? Do you hold yourself back from saying constructive feedback out of fear of upsetting the person even when the feedback is reasonable? Do you have realistic or unrealistic expectations for your partner’s choices and behaviors?

3. Challenge yourself to make a mistake.  As an experiment, try to make a mistake on purpose. Nothing major. For example, write an email to a trusted friend without editing it. No backspacing, no grammar checks, no re-reading, and no typo corrections. Now hit send. How did that feel? What are you thinking?

4. Work to be in the moment. Most perfectionists are worried about past mistakes or the idea of making ones in the future. The more you are in the now, the less you are worrying and the more energy you have to focus and make less mistakes. Deep breathing and other meditation and relaxation techniques can help with this.

5. Try to not be so serious. Mistakes, problems, unexpected detours, and changing schedules are not necessarily the end of the world. Sometimes we actually do learn from mistakes. It’s not just a cliché to make you feel better. We learn from conflicts and failures, and they can actually move people closer, interpersonally. The goal is not to just laugh it off or to make fun of perfectionism. It is to give yourself a break and let life teach you something instead of just trying to control it.

6. Seek help. Changing perfectionistic tendencies is not easy. Turning to friends and family can be helpful, but those are usually the people who you fear losing, hurting, or disappointing. Instead, consider speaking with a professional. A professional who is experienced and licensed focuses on you and your needs, which makes discussing mistakes and flaws less risky. You are more likely to see that vulnerability does not equal weakness, disagreements do not equal the destruction of a relationship, and mistakes do not equal failures, when your head is clearer.

To learn more about strategies for coping with perfectionism, a good self-help resource is When Perfect Isn't Enough by Martin M. Anthony, PhD & Richard P. Swinson, M.D.