Updated: Dec 2, 2021
One of the most common problems I see in my mental health practice is perfectionism. Perfectionism is an imperfection that denies us our humanity. Perfectionism can lead to extra suffering in the form of anxiety, stress, burnout, and more. But life is doable without perfectionism. Your life won't fall apart if you let go of it. In fact, it will feel more fluid and less fragmented.
The person with perfectionism will likely experience stress and anxiety when they are triggered about the areas of their life that they are perfectionistic about. Their mood might change from being relaxed to being very tense. Their heart might start racing and they might start sweating. The experience of life changes into a feeling that it is just a big test--a test the perfectionist isn't very prepared for.
Perfectionism can also induce passivity as a way to prevent that anxiety and stress from arising. Rather than face failure, perfectionists can opt not to engage. Lack of engagement becomes a coping strategy, but one that leads to dissatisfaction.
Perfectionism can be directed at the self, others or both. Someone who is perfectionistic toward the self holds themselves to unrelenting high standards that aren't fair or reasonable. Perfectionism directed at others is similar but the standards are projected onto other people. Some people are perfectionistic toward themselves and others.
Features of perfectionism
Perfectionism expresses itself differently within people. Nevertheless, it usually has a few common characteristics though. These are:
High levels of self-criticism
Fear of failure
Over emphasis on outcomes
While many of us experience one or more of these features of perfectionism, it becomes a problem when we suffer multiple features to a high-degree. When any aspect of a person's life--interpersonal, work, play, etc.--is impaired by perfectionism, this is the threshold where we can say someone is suffering from being a perfectionist. For some people perfectionism shows up in many areas of their life, but for others, it might be just one. For example, someone might be a perfectionist about their body but not necessarily about their work and vice versa.
Standards are important. How we do things is important. We see the results when individuals and groups don't have any standards. Things fall apart. Chaos ensues. It's just bad for people when there are no standards. Having high standards isn't a problem. It's actually really important to seek growth and development until the day we die. It only becomes a problem when the standards are unrealistic and then disappointment is the inevitable result.
Realistic standards are achievable by the average person. Getting up on time for work is an achievable standard that most people live up to. Getting up at 4 AM every morning to do a 10-mile run 6 days a week is an unrealistic standard for almost everyone. Yet, the perfectionist might set unrealistic standards like that frequently and be dismayed and disappointed when they can't maintain them.
Unrealistic standards can take almost any form. Some people have unrealistic standards about their hair--they might constantly be checking it in the mirror, their physical fitness, their vehicle, their house, how they speak, how quickly and efficiently life unfolds, other people's behavior, their children's behavior and performance, how they score on tests, how many likes they get on social media posts, and so on.
High levels of self-criticism
Disappointment for the perfectionist usually comes with high levels of self-criticism. This type of negative self-talk might sound like the following:
"You're a loser."
"You should have known better that to think you could do this."
"Everyone can see how useless you are."
"That was a dumb thing to say."
"You're an idiot."
"You're always going to be a failure."
"Why even try?"
If any of this sounds familiar, it probably hurts just reading them because the voices sound so familiar. It might even make you want to cry. This is the pain that self-criticism causes. It's not helpful at all.
Self-criticism only fragments the self and leads to unnecessary suffering. Life is difficult enough without heaping hot coals on ourselves when we believe we made a mistake. For the perfectionist, the mistake might not even be a mistake at all. The perfectionist can take the smallest piece of evidence and start rolling the tape of self-criticism. In fact, there doesn't have to be any evidence at all. Usually, the perfectionist can manufacture evidence from thin air. It's a very sad situation.
Fear of failure
Because perfectionists set such unrealistic goals and then punish themselves when they don't meet them, fear of failure is an inevitable outcome. If you've experienced a lifetime of disappointment at yourself, eventually you're going to fear engaging in anything important so as not go through the cycle of shame and self-criticism that follows when inevitably things don't match the unrealistic expectations that have been set.
It's normal to have a healthy amount of anxiety when we are trying something outside of our comfort zone. For example, it's actually good to have some amount of anxiety going into a test. It's been shown that people with a little bit of test anxiety outperform those with no anxiety at all. Anxiety can help us stay sharp and focused in those situations.
However, for the perfectionist, things like an important exam can result in a tremendous amount of anxiety. When people cross that threshold, performance actually goes down. It might even result in someone not even taking the test. They might actually make themselves sick because the fear of failure is so huge. While I don't know exactly what happened to Simone Biles in the Olympics, all of the pressure from needing to be perfect likely resulted in this type of shut down for her. The fear of failing became so great that her performance was impacted and she eventually avoided competing in most of the competition.
Fear of failure also can help create another feature of perfectionism--procrastination. With its close allies of unrealistic standards and self-criticism, fear of failure teams up to lead perfectionists to often suffer from procrastination. Why engage in an activity where you know you are going to fail or feel overwhelmed?
Many perfectionists procrastinate to delay the outcome that they already know will arise. The thought of starting work on a project where they will feel overwhelmed and stressed is too much. Perfectionists might instead engage in avoidance behaviors like:
Watching YouTube, browsing Reddit, or engaging in other social media
Doing a lot of preparation without actually engaging in the work itself
Going to the gym or doing some other "productive" activity that feels good but is actually avoiding responsibility
Binging on Netflix or some other streaming service
Perfectionists, after procrastinating, usually beat themselves up for engaging in the avoidance activities. This is how the cycle becomes a constant storm of suffering. High standards lead to a sense of failure. A sense of failure leads to self-criticism. Self-criticism leads to a fear of failure. A fear of failure leads to procrastination.
Over emphasis on outcomes
An over emphasis on outcomes also contributes to perfectionism. For the perfectionist, it doesn't matter whether one is a novice or an expert, how much they have practiced, or how they have engaged with something. All that matters is the end result.
When results are emphasized over the process and values that went into the work, the actual experience of life is diminished. Our actions are reduced down to just an evaluation of the product. This approach discounts environmental factors which many times make up most of the factors that determine results. For example, a fruit tree might not bear much fruit in an extreme drought. We wouldn't blame the tree. We'd blame the conditions. Perfectionists who focus on outcomes tend to ignore environmental conditions that contribute to how they did.
The biggest problem with emphasizing outcomes is that it's dehumanizing. We aren't robots. We're people at various stage of growth and development and situated within varying degrees of supportive environments. We don't exist as separate individuals. We exist as part of the environment including our society, organizations, and family and friends.
Where does perfectionism come from?
This is a difficult question to answer. Perfectionism can't be traced to a single source. It's complex, but we can draw some conclusions based upon individual and social factors.
Our nature is to be social animals. Before civilization, human beings existed in small groups of usually no more than 100 people. We needed each other desperately to survive. Humans thrived because we could coordinate with each other to outperform stronger and faster animal species. Because we need each other so much, one consequence of this was to become very sensitive to social cues from others. We unconsciously scan others to see how they are reacting to us. We care deeply about belonging because if the tribe decides that we don't, we might be exiled. In the historic past this would mean certain death unless we found another group to take us in.
Even though we can survive in our society without necessarily belonging to a tribe, we still have the brains of our ancestors. We want to feel valuable and that we belong. In our society, we have emphasized productivity and success. As a result, perfectionists many times have internalized these societal values and feel like they need to embody them in order to stay alive.
Family of origin
Sadly, most perfectionists likely became that way because of their families. Regardless of the individual, if they are supported and loved, they aren't as likely to develop perfectionistic personalities. This isn't always the case though since the societal factors mentioned above are ever-present.
Children with demanding parents who are overly critical can shape their children into perfectionists. A parent who gives love conditionally based upon performance at school or some other activity is teaching their child not to love themselves unless they produce a particular result. Children need to be encouraged to value themselves regardless of the outcome while also being encouraged to attempt their best shot. Children need to be taught to believe in themselves and not be chastised if they don't meet the parents' expectations. This doesn't mean not punishing children if they aren't being responsible for things like their homework, it just means that parents who foster a sense of security and a safe to fail environment will help children to internalize that sense of security and the safety to fail within themselves. When they leave the home, they are much more likely to carry that sense with them into the world.
What personalities are perfectionists?
Personality has been studied more than any other aspect of psychology. While personality is enduring, it does change over a lifetime. Nevertheless, our temperaments are largely decided by genes as any mother with multiple children can tell you. This isn't to say that upbringing doesn't shape temperament and personality. It does. Like all aspects of psychology, genetics and environment play a significant role.
While no theory of psychology is perfect, one of the most complete and generally agreed upon standard of personality focuses on what are called factors. This study of personality came up with five factors that describe personality. As a result, this theory of personality is called "The Big Five." They are:
Conscientiousness and Neuroticism
When it comes to perfectionism, the two traits that are most involved are conscientiousness and neuroticism. Conscientious people are more highly organized and concerned about doing a task well. Those high in neuroticism tend to be more anxious and turbulent. Someone who is high in both conscientiousness and neuroticism is likely to become a perfectionist.
This doesn't mean other factors don't play a role. For example, someone who is introverted versus extraverted might be less willing to ask for help. This might make perfectionism worse. Someone who is open to new experience might be more willing to learn coping strategies and learn to change their perfectionism. Someone with more agreeableness might listen to the advice of others less defensively and also get help with their perfectionism more easily.
In short, personalities with high amounts of neuroticism and conscientiousness are likely the personalities that suffer the most perfectionism. Those perfectionists who also have moderate to high levels of openness, extraversion, and/or agreeableness might find more success at coping with it. This isn't to say that some people can't be helped with perfectionism--only that personality traits besides conscientiousness and neuroticism will also play a role in recovery.
How others experience perfectionists
Not everyone experiences perfectionists the same way and it depends on whether someone has self-directed perfectionism or other-directed perfectionism. Some people might find self-directed perfectionists to be sympathetic people who are too hard on themselves. Others might feel like other-directed perfectionists are too demanding not just on themselves but everyone else. They might not want to work with them if they feel like their standards are too exacting on those around them.
Partners of perfectionists can get frustrated over time. If perfectionists procrastinate a lot and don't get things done, their partners might become exhausted with them if they are always getting after them. Partners of perfectionists might also find it difficult to deal with the effects of the self-criticism. It might become tiring always trying to patch up a partner who relentlessly attacks themselves and their performance. Living with an other-directed perfectionist can just be a nightmare as the partner is likely to feel constantly evaluated and judged.
What is the impact of perfectionism?
Perfectionism shouldn't be taken lightly. All of the features of perfectionism have an impact. On top of that, the stress and anxiety that results from overall perfectionism creates additional suffering. Stress and anxiety can lead to depression which can make things worse.
Fear of failure can impact the perfectionist by leading them to stop trying things they want to do. It might make them decide to drop out of school or not apply for a particular job. Fear of failure can lead to isolation and loneliness if someone is afraid to make friends or ask someone out on a date.
Procrastination also can have a serious impact. It can make someone lose a job or not get promoted if their performance suffers. The irony of this is obvious since internally the person is procrastinating because they want to do a perfect job. Procrastination can lead to the break-up of a relationship if a partner feels left hanging or not supported.
Self-criticism can lead to depression. Someone who is always attacking themselves eventually might lose their self-esteem. This can result in depression. It can also result in isolation if the lack of self-esteem results in social anxiety and avoiding people.
Unrealistic standards can result in someone giving up on things too early. This means never letting oneself be a beginner or leaving room for growth. Someone who hops from one endeavor to another because of unrealistic standards will not feel satisfaction from their efforts.
A narrow focus on outcomes narrows one's experience of life. Rather than letting life be playful and creative, the life is sucked out of every experience when only outcomes matter. A narrow focus on outcomes might also alienate others who just want to focus on the experience as a whole. It's not necessarily fun to spend time with someone who is approaching things like a checklist.
Ways to cope with perfectionism
Treating perfectionism isn't simple. It's tied up in personality, a person's childhood, and a lot of habits. That doesn't mean the situation is hopeless. It just means that someone who is experiencing perfectionism needs to be open to committing to a process of change if they want to significantly alter their experience of life.
One of the critical ways of changing perfectionism is to practice acceptance. The serenity prayer captures the essence of acceptance.
Grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Acceptance starts with understanding what we can't change. Most of us aren't going to be exceptional at something. We aren't going to be Olympic athletes or win a Nobel Prize. Our society makes us believe that anything less than greatness isn't acceptable. But it is acceptable. We must accept that we can still have a meaningful life and one with value even if we don't experience the type of greatness that society tells us we should strive for. The same applies to others. If we are holding others to unrealistic expectations, we're going to be constantly frustrated and alienate ourselves from others. We have to learn to accept that humanity is deeply flawed.
SMART goals help us to understand if we are setting realistic expectations for ourselves while still holding us accountable. SMART stands for:
Specific - Am I aiming for something concrete versus abstract? For example, "lose ten pounds" versus "be the most beautiful person in the world."
Measurable - Is there a way to measure what I want to accomplish. For example, "be able to run a marathon" versus "become an elite athlete."
Achievable - Can this even be accomplished? "Practice learning a new language an hour a week" versus "learn a new language in a week."
Realistic - Even if something is achievable, is it realistic for us and our situation. Traveling to every country in the world in a year might be achievable, but is it realistic?
Timebound - We need to place a time constraint on our goals to hold ourselves accountable.
Here's a few examples of SMART goals accompanied by ones that aren't:
SMART - Lose one pound this week.
Not SMART - Lose 20 pounds this week. (Not realistic)
SMART - Earn a Master's degree in the next four years.
Not SMART - Earn a Master's degree. (Not timebound)
SMART - Do one self-care task every day this month.
Not SMART - Become beautiful this year. (Not specific)
SMART - Run a marathon this year.
Not SMART - Become an elite athlete this year. (Not measurable)
SMART - Enroll in a class to get my pilot's license this month.
Not SMART - Fly to the moon this year. (Not achievable even for Elon Musk - at least this year)
Compassion starts with looking at the world for what it is, a place with many broken dreams and misplaced values. Why should we be so eager to be part of celebrity culture or get the approval of a sick world anyway? What does that have to offer us if we have no self-compassion or self-worth?
Self-compassion means being able to show ourselves the same amount of grace and generosity as we would a dear friend or family member. Most of our situations have been outside of our control for most of our lives. We didn't choose our parents, our genes, our geographic location, and so on. Most of us are just trying to get by in a chaotic world and that is something to have a lot of compassion about.
We don't have to eliminate the negative self-talk to still make room for compassion. We can let critical thoughts just be thoughts without giving them so much power. Then we have space to comfort ourselves instead of punishing ourselves. To have compassion means to open up rather than shut down. We have a tremendous amount of psychological space inside if we allow ourselves access to it. Filling ourselves with compassion that includes not only our broken world, but ourselves is a great place to start.
Emphasize values not outcomes
Outcomes makeup very little of our experience of life. When we only care about outcomes we miss the bulk of our experience. By connecting with values rather than outcomes we change that completely. Values are how we do things. Do we run playfully or eagerly? Do we study enthusiastically? Do we volunteer humbly?
How we do things is far more important than outcomes because how we do things creates our actual experiences. For example, if I aim to make a million dollars, if I'm only focused on the outcome, I can achieve that by robbing elderly women. I can also accomplish that by writing a best-selling novel. The experience will be drastically different based upon how I do it.
Perfectionism is a serious problem that can make our lives incredibly challenging. It's caused by many factors, but we aren't doomed to its impact. There are many ways to work on freeing ourselves from perfectionism so that we can have our lives back and not be controlled by it.