A teenage boy is an exceptional baseball player. Every time he pitches a perfect game, his parents praise him. Every time he doesn’t, his parents lecture him on what he did wrong (and he berates himself). They encourage him to train long hours.
A young woman is convinced she’s too big. Her mother and grandmother regularly shame others for their weight. And they shame her, too. The young woman’s mom sticks to a strict number of calories and only eats “clean” foods. Soon the young woman starts doing the same. She and her mom “bond” over counting calories. Her mom praises her for adhering to a rigid diet and doing endless cardio. She praises her for losing weight. The young woman is terrified of stopping the diet and exercise.
Often, this is how perfectionism starts. This is how we start striving for something we know, intellectually, is impossible, for something we know we can never attain. We learn that by setting and attaining sky-high, restrictive goals, we become lovable.
“Perfectionists believe that at their core they are unlovable or “not good enough,” and try to make up for that with perfect grades, job promotions, high salaries, awards and achievements,” said Ann Marie Dobosz, MA, MFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in perfectionism, anxiety, depression and self-criticism.
Perfectionists fear losing love, respect and relationships, she said. Which, of course, is understandable if you’ve been taught, like the individuals above, that adhering to certain standards results in attention and affection.
Some kids also are taught that mistakes are terrible. That is, their parents criticize them anytime they mess up, which teaches their kids that “it is important to never make a mistake, and it is safer to be perfect,” said Christina Cruz, Psy.D, a life coach who specializes in perfectionism, anxiety, depression and body image. She actually worked with the above clients. At her practice, she sees perfectionism play out in all areas of life—from motherhood to the minute tasks of daily life.
Maybe your parents were flexible with you—but not so much with themselves. Maybe they set unrealistic standards with their work, their weight, their appearance. And when they didn’t measure up, they bashed themselves. And you’ve adopted their approach. Maybe you learned to yearn for perfection from someone else—a ballet instructor, soccer coach—from an entire institution—a school or college—or simply from our society—such as the ridiculous beliefs about weight.
“A lot of perfectionism happens in people’s heads,” said Dobosz, also author of The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Reduce Anxiety and Get Things Done. That is, perfectionists are plagued by a voice that is persistent, harsh and judgmental, she said.
Many are extremists. According to Cruz, perfectionists may have thoughts like: “If I can’t do it perfectly, then why try at all?” They see individuals as good or bad, right or wrong, a success or a failure.
Perfectionists are often indecisive. They fear that there’s only one “right” decision to make or path to take, Cruz said. Which means they don’t make any decision at all. Because the worst thing is to be wrong, or to make a bad choice or mistake. Because, again, it puts you at risk of losing everything.
On the outside, perfectionists appear to have it all together. But there are cracks. Some perfectionists are actually drowning and constantly trying to keep up, Cruz said. They are “disorganized at home, work, and their minds are constantly spinning.”
Perfectionists also can be anxious. They “seek comfort in having life planned out to the smallest details, in hopes they can predict and control everything,” Dobosz said. “When plans change or normal glitches happen, it can send perfectionists into a tailspin of catastrophizing—imagining disastrous outcomes as a result of the smallest setbacks.”
Dobosz stressed the importance of distinguishing between perfectionists and high achievers (or hard workers): High achievers are meticulous and have a strong work ethic. They’re resilient and can accept setbacks. They take responsibility, learn from their mistakes and see failure as an opportunity to grow. Perfectionists, however, set impossible standards and are devastated by setbacks. They either beat themselves up or shut down, and give up.
Cruz also noted the differences between healthy striving and perfectionism, as illustrated by Brené Brown’s research. Healthy striving is “self-focused.” Individuals ask themselves: “How can I improve?” or “What can I learn from this experience?” In perfectionism, self-worth and self-identity are “other focused.” According to Cruz, this “can create dangerous messages like: “I am what I accomplish” or “What will they think of me if __________?”
We may pursue perfection because we were taught to. We may pursue perfection as a way to protect ourselves from judgment and shame. If we never make a mistake, if we never fail, then we can’t be criticized, condemned or humiliated. Right?
Striving for something we can never achieve is exhausting. It is demoralizing. It is unhealthy. Perfectionism has been linked to everything from depression to anxiety to elevated stress levels, Cruz said. “Perfectionism gets in the way of truly allowing one’s self to be seen, it hinders connection with others, limits perspectives, and leaves little room for self-compassion.”
Your need for perfection may take some time to understand and dismantle. But it is worth it. You might start by working with a therapist or coach.