As I sit in front of clients who are relentlessly self-critical, pushing themselves to achieve one goal after another and suffering from anxiety, burnout and other mental health issues, I feel compelled to support them to understand where their perfectionism is stemming from and how it’s impacting their lives. I feel particularly passionate about this subject because of my own experiences of perfectionism. Up to 2 years ago, I worked for 10 years at a large NGO. Whilst at that time, I thought I was just a hard worker with incredibly high standards, the reality was that I was highly self-critical, constantly in fear of failing and setting myself targets which I could only achieve at the expense of my health. It’s only after moving out of that environment, changing my lifestyle and doing some important internal work that I was able to recognise how the insidious nature of perfectionism had been impacting my physical and mental well-being.
You’re probably thinking, ‘Isn’t it a good thing to work hard, strive for excellence and work towards your goals?’. My answer to you is that, yes, these are positive attributes and behaviours, but perfectionism is not these things. Perfectionism is a set of thought-patterns which push you to set and try to achieve unrealistic goals or standards. Most importantly, it’s what’s beneath this behaviour which is crucial. The core belief underlying perfectionism is ‘I’m not good enough as I am’, resulting in a relentless pursuit of perfectionism to prove to others, and yourself, that you are indeed worthy of love and validation.
Common traits of perfectionists:
- You’re highly critical of yourself and others
- You set yourself unrealistic standards
- You find it hard to delegate and trust that others can complete set tasks competently. When you do delegate, you find it hard to let go, often feeling the need to check and micro-manage.
- You’re overly concerned with how others see you
- You’re very results-focused rather than enjoying the process of learning and growing
- You react defensively to negative feedback
- You find it hard to accept your mistakes
- You fear failure which often results in you procrastinating or feeling immobilised
- You feel very low and disappointed if results are not achieved
- When you do achieve your goals, rather than allowing yourself to acknowledge and enjoy your success, you quickly move to the next challenge.
If you recognise yourself in many of the above points, fear not. One of the first steps in changing is to understand what perfectionism is and how it’s impacting your life.
Perfectionism develops in environments where children are highly criticised, disapproved of and where love appears conditional and based on one’s achievements. This can be communicated to children in very subtle ways, such as a disapproving look, a tone of voice and so on. Children then unconsciously internalise the message ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m not enough as I am’ or ‘My value and worth is based on my achievements’, unaware that they’re worthy of love just as they are. Such children subsequently learn to over-value performance and pursue perfection as a means of parental approval, all the while berating themselves and belittling their accomplishments. In adulthood, this is further exacerbated by societal pressures to achieve, wherein we’re valued and rewarded for our accomplishments – high wages, big house, expensive car etc. Social media then provides us with the means of displaying our success, whilst at the same time serving as a platform to broadcast our failures or mistakes, thus instilling shame.
In other words, the pursuit of perfection becomes a means of avoiding a sense of shame of not being good enough, and a fear that anything less than perfection will result in being unworthy and undeserving of people’s love and acceptance. Therefore, a mistake for the perfectionist is not just a mistake but a reminder of one’s worthlessness and the potential for being ‘found out’. The irony is that making mistakes and acknowledging them is a crucial aspect of learning and growing. Thus, the very things which would increase the chances of succeeding to achieve one’s goals is the exact thing the perfectionist avoids at all cost. This fear of making mistakes often stops people taking risks and causes people to give up very easily and procrastinate rather than take action.
So, now that we know what perfectionism is, just how prevalent is it and how is it impacting our lives? A meta-analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism from 1989 to 2016 (Curran and Hill, 2017) found that perfectionism is on the rise. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re just becoming more accomplished. Katie Rasmussen, a Professor at West Virginia University put it well when she said: ‘What this means is that we’re getting sicker, sadder and more undermining of our potential’. The World Health Organisation echoed these sentiments, reporting a significant rise in young people experiencing depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, all of which have been linked with perfectionism.
Since, for perfectionists, performance is tied so intimately with their sense of self, what would be experienced as disappointment or a setback for a non-perfectionist is experienced by perfectionists as a deep sense of shame and feelings of worthlessness. Avoiding such feelings results in perfectionists over-working and spending less time with family and friends, enjoying hobbies, exercise and so on, all precursors for stress and anxiety. Furthermore, since perfectionists feel the need to hide their failures or any signs of ‘weakness’, they’re also less likely to reach out for support, thus preventing them from experiencing the cushioning impact of emotional support. Perfectionists also tend to engage less in self-compassion, known to be a strong protector against anxiety and depression. One the contrary, perfectionists are highly self-critical, intolerant of their own shortcomings and less likely to engage in self-care.
I’m well aware that perfectionism is rarely seen as a negative trait, so my article may be going against the grain. In fact, claiming to be a perfectionist is almost a stock response in job interviews. For anyone who may have recognised themselves in this article, however, I’d encourage you to reflect on whether your behaviour and thought patterns are simply that of a high achiever or a perfectionist. If it’s the latter, I’d encourage you to seek the support of a professional to develop a healthier relationship with yourself and your environment. Not only will you learn a lot about yourself but you’re likely to feel a lot healthier, both physically and mentally.