Have you ever felt like no matter what you do, it’s just never going to be good enough? Do you get intense anxiety at the thought of failure? Do you feel pressure from yourself or others to always be the best at work, school, or home? If so, you might be a perfectionist. Perfectionism is characterized by the setting of impossibly high standards for yourself and intensely self-criticizing when you don’t meet those standards. It’s pretty easy to spot a perfectionist from the outside, but it’s often a lot harder for perfectionists to identify themselves as such because they don’t think their standards are too high. They may even get so paralyzed by their impossibly high expectations of “doing it right” or “doing it best” that they struggle to even do anything at all. Sometimes the only way for perfectionists to recognize that they are, in fact, perfectionists, is to identify the intense feelings of guilt, embarrassment, anxiety, fear, disgust, and inner turmoil that result when they don’t live up to their own expectations.
Perfectionists are sometimes hard to convince that they are perfectionistic. Why? Because every perfectionist is convinced that the standards that they set for themselves are perfectly reasonable and perfectly attainable if they just work hard enough. They often argue that their standards and expectations are perfectly in line with their goals, their religious beliefs, what they see other people doing, etc., etc., etc. What they don’t recognize is the destructive toll their perfectionism takes on their sense of self-worth, their relationships, and their mental health.
Too often, our culture encourages and rewards perfectionism because perfectionists put incredible amounts of effort into projects and relationships. Frankly, perfectionists get things done. But what price do perfectionists have to pay to achieve those standards? First, a perfectionist’s sense of self worth is externally based; they are only as good as their latest goal or achievement. They fail to see any worth in themselves for internal characteristics such as kindness, intelligence, or a sense of humor. They only feel good if they are accomplishing or achieving, which means that if they make a mistake or fail to meet their own (or others’) expectations, they feel like dirt. At this point, they often fall into depression or develop intense anxiety over the failure. They personalize and internalize the failure, “I didn’t get 100% on that test, so I’m a worthless, stupid loser.” They beat themselves up mercilessly until they can find something else to achieve that will hopefully make themselves feel better. Basing your worth on external achievements is signing up for a never-ending roller coaster of self-doubt and self-deprecation.
Second, perfectionists leave little to no room for making mistakes. A score of 99 out of 100 is seen as a complete failure because they missed that 1 question. The world is seen in black in white; either they achieve complete success or they are an utter failure. Perfectionists can’t simply brush off mistakes and failure as a normal part of the human experience. They see mistakes and failures as a reflection of who they are. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I made a mistake,” they think, “Ugh, I am such a mistake/loser/idiot/failure.” Because true perfection is impossible, they spend their whole lives believing they are worthless.
Finally, most perfectionists are intensely concerned with what other people think about them, which also puts them into the category of “people-pleasers.” Not only do they force themselves to live up to their own rigid standards, but they are constantly trying to meet everyone (and I do mean EVERYONE) else’s expectations of them. They run from project to project, person to person, trying to do everything and be everything for everyone. They exhaust themselves in the endless pursuit of approval.
Now that we have thoroughly established what perfectionism looks like, how do we overcome it? The first step is to recognize it. So, are you a perfectionist? Do you have a loved one who struggles with perfectionism? Okay, now that you know, the next step is to learn to relax your rigid standards and expectations and how to treat yourself with compassion and understanding when you do make mistakes.
For minor league perfectionists, you can achieve these things by making a few changes in the way you view yourself and your life. Sit down and write a list of the standards you set for yourself at school (getting straight A’s, never missing a class), at work (always impressing my boss, creating the best presentations), at home (never yelling at my kids, always having dinner ready on time), in social situations (always say the right things, always having the best outfit), at church (being to every meeting all the time, always taking notes) and so on. Then, ask yourself if these standards are realistic. If the standards use words like “always,” “never,” “every,” or “all,” that’s perfectionistic thinking. Circle the ones that you think might be too perfectionistic or to rigid. Take the list to at least three people in your life that you trust (non-perfectionists only!) and ask them to pick out anything they think is unrealistic. Once you have that list, start modifying each of the unrealistic standards so they are more flexible. For example, “Always be on time,” can become, “Do my best to arrive on time but give myself a break if the circumstances don’t allow a timely arrival.”
For major-league perfectionists, you may need to seek professional counseling in order to identify the ways perfectionism is harming you. Often, hardcore perfectionists also struggle with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or other mental health issues. When perfectionism becomes, or contributes to, the development of mental illness it is vital to seek help from a trained professional. You don’t have to hate yourself for every little mistake you ever make. You don’t have to “perform” in social situations to gain approval. You don’t have to continually feel like you aren’t good enough and no one could ever love you if they really knew the real you. Help is available! If you or someone that you love struggles with perfectionism, contact us at Utah Valley Counseling by calling 801.407.4134 for an appointment or for a free 15 phone consultation with one of our therapists.