Picking up on what I touched upon in my self-acceptance article last week, today we’ll be talking about the harm of perfectionism. Perfectionism is something I’ve suffered from, and it really had a negative effect on my life and how I developed as a person. But with my health and mental health issues, I just don’t have the spoons (energy) for it anymore. And quite frankly, neither should you. Here’s why.
What Is Perfectionism?
It depends on who you ask. For a lot of people, perfectionism is seen as a positive trait which is equated with success and being good at what you do (Good therapy). But if this was all perfectionism was, then why am I writing this article?
I’ll let Hill and Curran (2016) explain why I’m writing this article because they explain it better than me. According to them, perfectionism is a multidimensional trait or disposition that can be classed into two different types of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionist strivings are the positive traits we associate with perfectionism, and the one most seen as the healthy form of perfectionism.
Basically, there’s nothing wrong per se with striving for perfection. After all, having high standards can be a good thing. Think of an artist honing their craft or working up through the grading system in martial arts.
However, there’s a difference between striving for perfection and demanding it (Psychology Today). This is where we enter the realm of perfectionistic concerns, or more simply put, negative perfectionism. Having high standards is one thing, but being completely inflexible about them is something else. This form of perfectionism can set you up to fail, and cause stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues (Good therapy) like imposter syndrome.
A study conducted by Geranmayepour and Besharat (2010), which used 185 participants, found that positive perfectionism was positively associated with psychological wellbeing. They also found that it was negatively associated with psychological distress. The results also showed that negative perfectionism was negatively associated with psychological wellbeing and positively associated with psychological distress. As you would expect.
Another way of looking at it is that there are positive perfectionists that are achievement achievement-oriented, and maladaptive negative perfectionists, who are failure-oriented (Psychology Today). I was very much the latter type of perfectionism. People with the form of perfectionism that I had, seek perfectionism not because of wanting to be challenged or to grow (Psychology Today), but because they fear inadequacy or failure (Good therapy).
This negative form of perfectionism is the neurotic version of the trait, whereby we try to be faultless and evaluate ourselves harshly (Geranmayepour and Besharat, 2010). Self-criticism dialled up to 11. For me, this meant that if I couldn’t already be seen as being good at something, I wouldn’t try. This perspective narrows your world considerably because you can’t be instantly good at something if you’ve not tried it before. This form of perfectionism sucks the happiness out of your world.
Negative perfectionism can cause us to be trapped in a world of worries, where we’re in near-constant fear of doing something wrong and making mistakes, mainly because we fear being judged by others (Geranmayepour and Besharat, 2010). If you have ever felt like you’re an imposter at work, because you’re not as good as everyone else, then you’ve been living with negative perfectionism. I currently go through waves of this at the moment.
If we could avoid our perfectionist tendencies from becoming negative perfectionism, then all would be right with the world. But if we can’t, then according to Hill and Curran (2016), research is accumulating that links perfectionism with having a heavy toll on our health, causing poor health, fatigue, and shortening our lives.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll be mainly talking about perfectionistic concerns, aka negative/maladaptive perfectionism, whenever I mention perfectionism.
Causes Of Perfectionism
- One of the unfortunate causes of perfectionism is abuse.
- Feelings of inadequacy, which could be linked to self-esteem issues or issues around accepting your identity, to name a few.
- There’s obviously a link with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But much like all serial killers are psychopaths, not all psychopaths are serial killers, the same is true with OCD. Not everyone with OCD will have issues with perfectionism. I’m not trying to say that serial killers and people with OCD are in any way alike, I’m just fascinated by serial killers and this allowed me to use that fascination as an example of what I was trying to say.
- If you have loved ones with perfectionism habits, then that can rub off on us, especially if it’s a parent or a lover, although for different reasons. A parent might have intentionally installed perfectionist views in us, whereas when it comes to a lover it might be to avoid them complaining you’ve not done something right.
- An insecure early attachment (Good Therapy). If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, then you may be aware that I have borderline personality disorder (BPD), where my poor attachment was a huge factor in its development. Well, it was also a factor in my perfectionism. Doing something perfect can be self-soothing, in an unhealthy way. It can also give you a sense of control and accomplishment. Again, in a bit of an unhealthy way.
Signs Perfectionism Is Ruining Your Quality Of Life
As I think I’ve made clear by now, the key difference between positive and negative perfectionism is having ridged and unrealistically high standards (Verywell Mind). The main problem with this is that you’re constantly setting yourself up for failure. Does the following sound familiar: I keep setting myself goals but I never achieve them? If so, then you could be setting yourself up to fail because of perfectionism. It could also be poor planning and poor goal creation, but I can help with that either way. Just wait for the ‘Overcoming Perfectionism’ section below.
Sensitivity to criticism
Speaking from experience, I can struggle to hear criticism, which isn’t how it should be. Criticism is a fact of life, and it can be used as a way to grow as a person. However, how that criticism is delivered is also important (for more on that, check out my article ‘The Hard Truth About Eating The Criticism Sandwich‘).
If you find it difficult to hear even trivial criticism, or you see any kind of disagreement with your point of view as being a slight against you in some way, then perfectionism is ruining your wellbeing. My partner struggles with this latter issue. Any time we don’t agree on something, even something that isn’t about us, they see it as an argument. The reality is, we’re two individuals who have similar views on the world because they’re not carbon copies.
Won’t accept a task is finished
This is one that recently came up with a client of mine. Simply put, when you have perfectionist tendencies, you often have high standards, which can be fine until they’re not. One way in which this can rob you of your wellbeing is that you can’t accept that a task is complete until it’s met your high standards. This can mean you’ll keep trying to reach that high standard before accepting the task is complete. But it can also mean that you’ll fall out with someone if they haven’t completed a task to your high standards, which can put a strain on a relationship.
The end product
This isn’t a version I’m too familiar with myself, but it makes sense. This was suggested by Good Therapy, and it’s less about being perfect at a task, and more about being solely focused on the end product. An extreme example of this could be seen in Soviet Russia. During WWII, all that mattered was meeting quotas for things like tank productions. As a result, quality dropped so dramatically that many completed Russian tanks during WWII weren’t useable.
It’s likely that you’re not making tanks to beat back a Nazi invasion, but if you’re more focused on a task being completed than the process that gets you there or doing a good enough job, then perfectionism may be undermining what you’re capable of. Thus, doing yourself a disservice.
Fear of failure
This is the one that haunts my perfectionist mind and is still a problem for me to this day. For me, it lingers in my mind in the form of impostor syndrome. I couldn’t tell you why I fear failure, only that I do. I mean, you can literally fail your way upwards into being the Prime Minister of the UK, so I really don’t know why I’m so fearful of it.
If, like me, the prospect of failing at something is scary (Verywell Mind), or worse, debilitating, then perfectionism could be the reason for this fear. This would also be the reason why you fear starting something new or challenging.
Giving up before you’ve started
As I’ve already talked about. I used to need to be seen to be good at something otherwise I wouldn’t try, which reduced my experiences and happiness. If you’re also denying yourself the opportunities to try new things or not performing a task at work unless you know you can do it perfectly because you fear being judged, then perfectionism is undermining your quality of life.
Ah, procrastination, my old nemesis. When you’re a perfectionist, you might not want to start a task until you know you can do it perfectly. Yet, how can you know that if you don’t start? Usually, we’ll just put off those tasks until we don’t have a choice but to rush through them and get them done. This allows us to circumvent our perfectionism by denying ourselves time. We also do smaller tasks first as a way to help justify this behaviour. If this sounds like you, then maybe your quality of life is suffering because of your perfectionism.
The flip side to leaving everything to the last minute to circumvent our perfectionism is to spend an ungodly amount of time on tasks that shouldn’t take nearly as long. I suffered from varying degrees of perfectionism, and when I started blogging I had to implement a rule to curb it. I would only proofread my articles once (with a grammar and spelling extension switched on, of course), otherwise, I’d keep finding faults every time and keep making changes. When working to a deadline, I just don’t have the time to waste like that. It’s easy to let perfectionism eat away your valuable time.
So if that rings true for you, that you take more time than would be expected on tasks, then perfectionism is wasting your valuable time that you could use to make your life better, such as engaging in self-care or a hobby.
Mistakes are a fact of life, we all make them. But if you’re so worried about making a mistake that it affects how you function day-to-day, then perfectionism may have taken a bite out of your wellbeing.
It should also be noted, that if you’re scared of making a mistake because you fear being yelled at or hurt, then that’s less to do with perfectionism per se, and more to do with potentially being in an abusive situation. Please seek help if that might be the case.
This has to be one of the worse sides of perfectionism because you can have these kinds of self-criticising intrusive thoughts bombarding you around the clock (Aware). If your mind is regularly telling you that you could be doing better in one form or another, then you could be letting perfectionism dictate who you are and what you can do.
It shouldn’t be surprising that perfectionism can lead to burnout, when you’re worried about making mistakes, beating yourself up with unchecked self-criticism, and having issues around starting and completing tasks.
A study by Madigan, Stoeber, and Passfield (2015) examined perfectionistic strivings, perfectionistic concerns, and athlete burnout in 101 junior athletes over a six-month training period. They found that perfectionistic concerns are a risk factor that contributes to the development of burnout among the athletes. They also found that perfectionistic strivings might appear to be a protective factor from burnout.
Therefore, if you’re struggling to manage life because you’re preoccupied with needing everything you do to meet your idea of perfection then maybe you’re perfectionism is causing you to burnout.
I can never say this enough. No one wins when you’re making comparisons, because we rarely make them for the right reasons. If you’re one of the few that makes comparisons with people you hope to be like, to help you grow as a person, then you may be the exception to the rule. But for most people, it appears we only do this in a self-destructive way. So, if you’re like me and make comparisons for negative reasons, then you could be letting perfectionism ruin your self-esteem and self-worth.
Lack of creativity
Although it might not seem like it, perfectionism can stop you from being creative (Psychology Today). The reason is, you need to be seen as being great at something by others, but creativity runs the risk of showing others that you’re not. At least that’s what you think will happen. This could be in the form of problem-solving where your ideas might get rejected, or something more artistic.
Ideas get shot down all the time, but that doesn’t mean that you’re some kind of failure. If there’s a problem at work, they don’t just problem-solve one way to deal with it and leave it at that. They problem-solve several so they can pick the best or use several options.
As human beings, we’re driven to be creative. That’s the reason nepo babies get to enjoy more creative pursuits because they don’t have to worry about money. And I think we’d all likely embrace a more creative life if money wasn’t an issue as well. But whatever form your creativity could take, perfectionism could be stopping you from enjoying the wonders of creativity.
We’re all prone to thinking errors, sometimes several at once. The most common version of people struggling with perfectionism is all-or-nothing thinking. For example, a perfectionist won’t accept anything unless it meets their perfectionist standards (Verywell Mind). So are you talking yourself out of starting a task because you don’t think you’ll meet your unrealistic high standards? Are you finding yourself not accepting something as being complete because it’s not perfect? If either of these sounds like you, then your perfectionism could be warping the way you think and see the world.
Because one of the issues with being a perfectionist is setting yourself up to fail, which can lead to you not trying at all, making your goals realistic is important. Enter, SMART goals. SMART goals are a simple way to take your aim and goals and turn them into something that is both realistic and achievable. Because there’s no point in giving yourself a goal that’s not realistic or achievable.
In life, pretty much nothing requires things to be perfect. If you can accept that as the truth that it is, then you can free yourself from the shackles of perfectionism. It’ll also improve your mental wellbeing and help you to feel happier.
As the famous saying goes, accept everything about yourself, “warts and all“. For example, you’re not weak if you need some alone time after a hard day, instead of going out to socialise after work. We live in a very busy and demanding world, and it’s ok to favour rest in such lifestyles, as productive humans need to rest (Aware). I don’t know about you, but I at least need a day’s notice if I’m going to socialise, ideally more notice than that. I’ve embraced introvertsism in my old age.
This leads nicely to my next tip, doing things to a good enough standard. Ask yourself if something is worth giving 100% to. Also ask yourself, if you should be giving 100% to everything you do, and if you do give 100% to everything, how long before you run out of spoons and burnout? Lastly, ask yourself, “What can be done to just a good enough standard?”
For example, some people make their bed every day. Not me of course, but some people do. There’s nothing wrong with making your bed every day, but does it need to be done to military standards every single day for the rest of your life? Or is it ok to save time and energy and just do it to a good enough standard instead? Unless your home has been put up for sale, who exactly is going to see that your bed is made anyway?
Furthermore, expecting everything to be done to a perfect standard can not only rob you of time and energy but can put a strain on your relationship. No one likes to do something and then be told by their partner that it’s not good enough.
This example about the bed being made came from someone I know, and it was an issue for their relationship because their partner kept feeling like they were being told off. They kept feeling like nothing they did was good enough for their partner. I don’t need to tell you how bad such a situation can be for a relationship. At some point, you just need to ask yourself what’s more important, perfectionism or happiness?
I feel like a broken record now, but no one really wins when they make comparisons, at least not when they’re attached to how it affects your self-esteem. If you want to overcome the issues that your perfectionist tendencies are causing you, then learn to stop making comparisons.
The spotlight effect
One of the reasons we fear failure and being harshly judged is because of the links between perfectionism, the spotlight effect, and our self-criticism. The reality is, no one’s going to judge you for failing or making a mistake because everyone is preoccupied with their own stuff. You may be the main character of your life story, but you’re not in others. Unless you have a dog of course.
Challenging negative thoughts
Negative intrusive thoughts suck. I’m sure there’s not a person alive who hasn’t experienced them at one point or another. I know mine have been with me almost my entire life. But just because these negative intrusive thoughts exist, that doesn’t make them true. Our negative intrusive thoughts will lie to us, and they’ll lie a lot. A simple way to deal with these negative intrusive thoughts is to challenge them by simply asking yourself, what’s the evidence for and against what these negative intrusive thoughts are saying? If you do this honestly, you’ll find that these negative intrusive thoughts are lying to you.
Chances are, you’re going to find it difficult to ditch your problematic high standards, so start small. When it came to the person I know needing their bed, among other things, to be done to their high standard, we started off small. We set them a challenge of leaving the bed unmade for two weeks to see how that made them feel and to see if they could cope. Then you just need to build on this until you’re able to accept that perfection isn’t needed in all things.
Be kind to yourself
Kindness isn’t just something you do for other people, you need to be kind to yourself as well. One way to start could be to switch out the self-criticism talk with compassionate self-talk (Psychology Today).
Talk to the people close to you, especially your partner, if you’re struggling with perfectionism. And if you feel you need to get further support, talk to a therapist. That is what they’re there for. This might not seem important, but Shannon, Goldberg, Flett, and Hewitt’s (2018) study found people with perfectionism issues are less likely to seek support and treatment for their mental health concerns. This is likely due to the stigma that still exists around mental health, so it could be seek as a failure to need to talk about your mental health.
Change rarely happens overnight, so remember to be patient with yourself while you work on implementing the change needed to overcome your harmful perfectionism.
Perfectionism comes in two flavours, like vanilla ice cream and coffee ice cream. Vanilla perfectionism is the one everyone can live with quite happily. But then there’s coffee perfectionism, the abomination that it is (you can tell I hate coffee). The version of perfectionism you want to live without, so when you get stuck with it, it sucks.
Let’s ditch the horrible metaphor. Positive perfectionism or perfectionistic strivings can have its place because it’s healthy. Whereas, negative perfectionism or perfectionistic concerns, are where the problems lie. They turn the high standards that you’d like to reach but are happy to settle with just doing your best, into a pathological need for everything to meet your high standards. Which just isn’t possible. Perfectionism isn’t possible. Even NASA work with margins of error.
One of the ironies of being a perfectionist is that you tend to achieve less in life and stress more than high achievers, at least according to (Verywell Mind). But that doesn’t surprise me. If you fear failure to the point you procrastinate or avoid starting something you’d like to do, then of course you’re not going to achieve much in life. And it goes without saying, you’re going to feel a lot of stress because of perfectionism at the same time. What’s more, unchecked stress can cause anxiety to develop.
What separates high achievers and happier people in general, is a lack of perfectionism holding them back. Because you’re going to suck at new things, no one is born with the knowledge of Einstein or the artistic ability of Pablo Picasso. They had to acquire that knowledge and those skills over decades. And even then, exceptionally gifted children don’t always end up as high achievers (Hoagies’ Gifted).
The only thing that negative perfectionism does is rob you of your life and life experiences. Gifted or not, nothing is going to happen if you don’t try new things and push yourself to take on challenges. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with failing or making mistakes, it’s all part of the human experience.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with perfectionism in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Geranmayepour, S., & Besharat, M. A. (2010). Perfectionism and mental health. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 5, 643-647. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042810015326.
Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2016). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A meta-analysis. Personality and social psychology review, 20(3), 269-288. Retrieved from https://ray.yorksj.ac.uk/id/eprint/701/1/Hill%20&%20Curran%20(in%20press).pdf.
Madigan, D. J., Stoeber, J., & Passfield, L. (2015). Perfectionism and burnout in junior athletes: A three-month longitudinal study. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 37(3), 305-315. Retrieved from https://ray.yorksj.ac.uk/id/eprint/1720/1/Madigan%20Stoeber%20Passfield%20%282015%29%20JSEP.pdf.
Shannon, A., Goldberg, J. O., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2018). The relationship between perfectionism and mental illness stigma. Personality and Individual Differences, 126, 66-70. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886918300229.