We’ve all experienced it at some point: the desire to be perfect.
After all, we’re living in a fiercely competitive society. One where productivity is glamorized and internet influencers dominateall in all, an excellent breeding ground for perfectionism.
Everywhere you look, there are pressures to be perfectto have the ideal body, a brilliant mind, the best grades, the coolest job, even a perfectly curated Instagram feed. We mistakenly believe that beingperfectwill ensure admiration, acceptance, and validation of our self-worth.
The truth is, there’s no such thing as perfectiononly the illusion of perfection. And chasing an illusion will get you nowhere fast.
As young children, we learn about expectations from the influential people in our livesparents, teachers, religious leaders, and even our peers. Expectations often get a bad rapthink unrealistic expectations from overly controlling or demanding parents. However,healthy expectationshelp shape our personal standardsthus, play a critical role in determining the quality of virtually every area of our lives.
If you dont set baseline standards for what youll accept in your life, youll find it easy to slip into behaviors and attitudes and a quality of life thats far below what you deserve. ~Tony Robbins
Personal standards are nothing more than a set of behaviors that are based on expectations you have of yourself in various situations. Psychology teaches us that we tend to get what we expecta phenomenon known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief or expectation that leads us to behave in ways (often subconsciously) that align with that belief, which, in turn, cause our expected outcome.
This line of thinking suggests that by having high standards, you are far more likely to achieve the kinds of things you want in life. If you have high personal standards, you will strive for excellence. If you have low personal standards, you will likely not put in the time, energy, or resources needed to achieve your goals.
But what if you expect nothing short of perfection?
Perfectionists are everywhere, often disguised as high achievers.
On the surface, it’s tough to tell the difference. High achievers and perfectionists both have extraordinarily high standards and a need to perform well. However, there is a glaring distinction between the two.
High achievers are driven by a relentless pursuit of excellence, while perfectionists are driven by arelentless pursuit of flawlessness.
Shame and vulnerability researcher, Bren Brownhighlights this important difference in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection:
Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focusedHow can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focusedWhat will they think? (Brown, 2010, p. 84).
The Dark Side of Perfectionism
If you peer inside the mind of a perfectionist, you won’t find a healthy desire to achieve somethinga job, relationship, project, or a certain grade. Instead, you will find a bleak, obsessive desire to perfect the selfto be flawlessas a way to seek temporary emotional relief from dark, painful feelings. You could even argue that true perfectionists aren’t really trying to be perfect at all. They are avoiding not being good enoughand this fearmakes them hyper-critical of everything they do. To the perfectionist, Failure = Worthlessness.
High achievers, on the other hand, are driven by a strong need to achieve or accomplish something meaningful. Perhaps the biggest difference is that high achievers operate with considerable resiliency. Driven by a growth mindset, high achievers see failures astemporary setbacksthat they might overcome with greater effort. They welcome constructive criticism, viewing it as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. For them, high personal standards are motivatingnot debilitating.
Clinical psychologists, Dr. Paul Hewitt and Dr. Gordon Flett, have spent over two decades studying perfectionism. Based on their research, they identify three distinct forms of perfectionism: self-oriented (a desire to be perfect), socially prescribed (a desire to live up to others’ expectations), and other-oriented (holding others to unrealistic standards).
The drive to be perfect in body, mind, and career may be taking a toll on young people’s mental health.A recent study published by the American Psychological Association found a clear upward trend for all three types of perfectionism. The study analyzed data from over 40,000 American, Canadian, and British college students. The results found that college students today are harder on themselves (self-oriented perfectionism), more demanding of others (other-oriented perfectionism), and report higher levels of social pressure to be perfect (socially prescribed perfectionism) than previous generations.
Perfectionism and Mental Health
Perfectionism has been linked to a host of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. Socially prescribed perfectionism, in particular, has been associated with an increased risk of both suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Socially prescribed perfectionists operate under the perception that others expect them to be perfect and will be highly critical of them if they fail to meet their expectations. Because perfection is impossible, perfectionists believe they are constantly letting everybody else down. Given that recent generations of college students are reporting higher levels of socially prescribed perfectionisma 32% increase from previous generationsit is critical that we understand and recognize the early signs of perfectionism.
1. You have an all-or-nothing mindset.
Dichotomous, or “All-or-Nothing” thinking refers to the tendency to evaluate one’s personal qualities in extreme, black-or-white categories. Common among perfectionists, this type of thinking leaves little room for error. Basically, if something isn’t perfect, then it’s perceived as a failure.
Challenge It:Learn how to reframe your thinking. Start by keeping a thought journal. Whenever you notice anegative thought, write it down in your journal. Pay attention to how that thought makes you feel. Try to find evidence that challenges your negative thought. Replace your original thought with an alternative or balanced thought. More of a tech person? Search for “CBT” or “Thought Diary” in your App store. There are several good free apps out there.
2. You have constant self-doubt.
Perfectionists experience enormous self-doubtespecially when it comes to their own performance. Even if they receive outstanding feedback, they will worry they’ve tanked. Because a perfectionist’s sense of self-worth hinges on the expectations of others, they will obsessively ruminate over everything. For example, they will worry about whether they phrased their email the exact right way, whether their friends really had a good time last night, or whether their boss actually liked the report they submitted.
Challenge It:Practice self-compassion. Begin by noticing your own suffering, especially when it’s caused by self-judgment or self-criticism. Once you notice your suffering, don’t judge yourself for it. Remember, imperfection is part of our shared human experience. Our imperfections make us unique.
3. Your self-worth depends on what you accomplish and how others respond.
Perfectionists base their self-worth on what they’ve been able to achieve. They strongly desire the approval of others and will regularly play the comparison game. For example, you believe that someone who attends an ivy league school is better than someone who attends a state college. Or you may view someone with 300 Instagram followers as less valuable than someone with two million followers. The list can go on and on.
Challenge It:Start treating yourself like you would a loved one. Make a list of all the things you love or appreciate about yourself that have nothing to do with achievement.Give yourself encouragement and celebrate your better moments. Review your list on a regular basis.
4. Fear of failure leads you to procrastinate or abandon projects.
Perfectionists continuously worry that they won’t meet their own (or other people’s) standards. Expectations of negative consequences cause anticipatory anxiety, which then leads to avoidance. Perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand. Postponing difficult tasksor abandoning them altogetherallows you to avoid failing.
The Challenge:Adopt a “done is better than perfect” mindset. Break projects down into small, manageable steps. Take frequent breaksespecially if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed.
5. You cannot accept and celebrate any successes.
Even if you complete your goal, you still believe you could and should have done a better job. Perfectionists don’t acknowledge their wins to the extent of feeling joy or satisfied over a job well done. Instead, they find any and all flaws in how they executed the project. For the perfectionist, there is always something wrong, even when they achieve the outcome they wanted.
Challenge It:Fight the urge to minimize your accomplishments. Reflect on your success by practicinggratitude. Take time to nurture yourself by engaging in your favorite self-care practices.
6. You avoid taking on challenges that may expose your weaknesses.
Perfectionists like to stick with what they know to avoid making mistakes. When faced with new challenges, they fear they won’t be smart enough or capable of learning something new. As a result, they avoid taking risks and end up stifling their creativityall to stay inside their own comfort zone.
Challenge It: Start with small risks that are not as anxiety-provoking. Over time, each small step will decrease your fear, increase your confidence, andstretch your comfort level. For bigger challenges, take the time to visualize the challengefrom beginning to end. Imagine any roadblocks and how you will overcome them.
7. You always put up a front, insisting everything is perfect.
Many perfectionists have an outward need to appear perfect and will avoid any chance to reveal imperfectionsespecially in public situations. Driven by a deep-rooted fear of vulnerability, perfectionists hide their perceived imperfections as ameans of securing the approval of others.
Challenge It: Practice self-acceptance and self-love by engaging in regular mindfulness exercises. This will help you build self-awareness so you can more easily identify when you are experiencing unpleasant emotions like shame, vulnerability or fear. Remember that emotions are a normal and necessary part of the human experience. We all experience them.
8. The word “Should” is part of your everyday vocabulary.
For most perfectionists, the word “should” is a prominent fixture in their daily internal dialogue. Statements like, “I should be the best at everything I do” or “I shouldnt make mistakes” will leave you feeling anxious or depressed and often lead to avoidant behaviors.
Challenge It:Learn to separate feelings from facts. Just because something feels a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s a reality. Instead of telling yourself, “I shouldn’t be feeling/thinking _____,” take a step back and say, “I notice I’m feeling/thinking _____. I wonder why that’s happening now?”
9. You get defensive when receiving feedback.
Perfectionists have excessively high standards and don’t allow for any mistakes. So when they receive constructive feedback, they have a tendency to engage in mental filteringhearing and focusing only on the “negative” feedback. Mental filtering can make you feel as though you are being verbally attacked, thus causing you to feel defensive.
Challenge It: Make an effort to maintain an open mind while receiving feedback. If you find yourself feeling defensive, assume positive intent from the person giving the feedback. If you are unsure of their intentions, ask questions to deconstruct the feedback so you understand where it’s coming from.
10. You frequently feel overwhelmed with stress.
Perfectionism can be a massive contributor to your personal stress, which can wreak havoc on your body. Chronic stress has been linked to insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, depression and even cardiovascular disease.
Challenge It:Learn to let go and release the stress associated with perfectionism. Begin by increase your level of self-awareness using mindfulness exercises. Learning to be mindful will help you become more aware of your perfectionistic tendenciesallowing you to face your intrusive thoughts without reacting to them.