Whilst not a stand-alone mental health condition perfectionism is a symptom that forms one of the diagnostic criteria of a range of different conditions such as: depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Now, for people who work with me you know that I’m not super focussed on diagnoses so much as working with the person who is navigating the challenges of whatever condition or situation is going on, which means I work with a lot of perfectionistic behaviours at Thea Baker Wellbeing (TBW). But I think that many of us don’t understand perfectionism, how it can show up and limit our lives so this week we’re doing some unpacking of what it is to live with perfectionistic thoughts – see if any of this resonates:
A perfectionist has “excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations” (Curran and Hill, 2019). Perfectionism is the drive to appear, feel and be perfect – externally and internally there’s a lot going on! This striving for flawlessness can manifest as criticism of self and others, in addition to attempts to control situations and people (to ensure things are done ‘perfectly’). Some of the most common traits of perfectionism include:
- Setting of unrealistic standards
- Fear of failure
- Focus on results (outcome vs process)
- Highly critical thinking
Perfectionism is particularly tricky because it’s a trait that society often validates and holds in high regard. There’s a strong similarity between perfectionists and high achievers. When I used to work as an HR Business Partner (many lifetimes ago!) I can’t tell you how many interviews I conducted where prospective candidates used the response “I’m a bit of perfectionist” when asked to share some of their ‘weaknesses’! It’s a sneaky response right, because the thinking is an employer would actually quite like tasks being completed perfectly.
Signs of Perfectionism:
- Black-and-white (or all-or-nothing) thinking – it’s either perfect or it’s not. Almost perfect is a failure. There’s no in-between for perfectionists.
- Highly critical – perfectionists are more focused on the mistakes and imperfections instead of being able to take pride in the things that they have achieved / accomplished.
- Unrealistic standards – perfectionists inadvertently trap themselves in a vicious cycle by setting unrealistic goals in the striving to be ‘perfect’.
- Fear-driven – whilst high-achievers are pulled towards their goals by a desire to achieve them (and so enjoy the process of achieving steps along the way), perfectionists are driven by a fear of anything less than a perfectly met goal.
- Focus only on results – this is all about enjoying the process of achieving the goal as much as the outcome. High achievers enjoy the process of chasing the goal as much as attaining the goal. Perfectionists only see the goal. They can become so concerned with avoiding failure and achieving the goal that the learning and growing that happens along the way are not enjoyed.
- Procrastination – this one might seem paradoxical, however research has shown that some perfectionism (‘maladaptive’ perfectionism) is more closely related to procrastination (Kurovic et al. 2019). This is the essence of the vicious cycle for perfectionists – the overriding fear of failure can cause perfectionists to worry so much that they become immobilised by procrastinatory thoughts, leading to delays and inaction.
- Fear of failure – this is a truly debilitating effect of perfectionism. Because of the value placed on results and the huge disappointment in anything less than perfect, failure becomes a terrifying prospect. This fear can have a knock-on effect for higher levels of anxiety for perfectionists (Rassaby et al. 2021).
- Defensiveness – if someone is so afraid of being anything other than perfect, feedback or constructive criticism will often be so painful to receive that perfectionists may respond quite defensively. High achievers are more likely to see feedback as an opportunity for growth.
- Feeling depressed by unmet goals – perhaps unsurprisingly, perfectionists are often less happy than high achievers (Badry et al. 2021). Perfectionists find it really challenging to bounce back from unmet goals.
- Low self-esteem – whilst striving for perfectionism might be associated with high self-esteem, when someone with perfectionist traits judges themselves critically it actually negatively effects their self-esteem (Taylor et al. 2016).
How to overcome perfectionism:
That all sounds pretty heavy and intense, but there are ways we can overcome these perfectionist behaviours. We often want to better understand when these behaviours / thoughts started because oftentimes it’s been in response to events in early childhood. That’s where doing some ‘parts-work’ or some trauma process work can be transformational. Other strategies that are helpful include:
If this blog has brought up something in your life that you’d like the space to explore, we have a team of trauma-informed therapists at Thea Baker Wellbeing and we have IMMEDIATE availability – please reach out to us at: email@example.com / 03 9077 8194.
Curran T, Hill AP. Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychol Bull. 2019;145(4):410-429. doi:10.1037/bul0000138
Kurtovic A, Vrdoljak G, Idzanović A. Predicting procrastination: The role of academic achievement, self-efficacy and perfectionism. Int J Educ Psychol. 2019;8(1):1-26. doi:10.17583/ijep.2019.2993
Rassaby M, Cassiello-Robbins C, Sauer-Zavala S. When perfect is never good enough: The predictive role of discrepancy on anxiety, time spent on academic tasks, and psychological well-being in unversity students. Person Indiv Diff. 2021;168:110305. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110305
Badri S, Kong M, Yunus W, Nordin NA, Yap W. Trait emotional intelligence and happiness of young adults: The mediating role of perfectionism. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(20):10800. doi:10.3390/ijerph182010800
Taylor JJ, Papay KA, Webb JB, Reeve CL. The good, the bad, and the interactive: Evaluative concerns perfectionism moderates the effect of personal strivings perfectionism on self-esteem. Pers Indiv Diff. 2016;95:1-5. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.02.006