Being described as a perfectionist can be considered a compliment. After all, having high standards for ourselves inspires us to do the best we can, approaching life with motivation and ambition.
Umm. No actually.
A growing body of evidence suggests that perfectionism can be extraordinarily damaging, cause overwhelming emotional suffering, and act as both a cause and symptom of anxiety disorders.
Perfectionism and anxiety
Melissa Dahl of New York Magazine writes, “Perfectionism is more than pushing yourself to do your best to achieve a goal; it’s a reflection of an inner self mired in anxiety.”
Often, this anxiety manifests as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and can come about from a specific event or more likely, develop gradually over time.
“The average person has very little understanding of how destructive perfectionism can be,” says Dr. Gordon Flett, a psychologist at York University.
“Perfectionism more than pushing yourself to do your best to achieve a goal; it is a reflection of an inner self mired in anxiety”
Over 50 years of research implicates perfectionism in suicide. In 2017, a meta-analysis found that people who are prone to suicide have self-generated and socially-based pressures to be perfect.
Full disclosure: I am a card carrying perfectionist and it’s one the traits I find the hardest to manage in myself.
I’m often told that I am superwoman and how do I manage to do it all? I run an entire business almost single-handedly, traveling around the country giving presentations and being quoted and published in magazines and newspapers. At the same time I have a husband and two children. I take the children to school each day I’m in Melbourne and pick them up too. I schedule time to spend with them each day. As well as this I cook everything from scratch and the house is spotless. I also exercise everyday.
While perfectionists may appear to have everything under control on the surface, underneath this thin veneer of perfection lies deep turmoil that both drives and comes from the pursuit of perfection.
For me, my life is go, go, go all the time, I’m doing a hundred different things at once and I’m not enjoying any of it. I feel overwhelmed but at the same time compelled to keep going.
I feel constantly frustrated and angry with myself for not meeting my high standards. I obsess about the next thing I have to do right. A major focus of my anxiety is time: I have so much to do and no time to do it in.
I often ask myself why I continue to push myself the way I do, I’m clearly exhausted. But instead of slowing down, I speed up and take on more.
Young and Klosko in their book, Reinventing Your Life, sum it up “It is as if you believe that one of the things you do is finally going to bring you satisfaction. You do not realise that the way you approach everything makes genuine pleasure impossible. Inevitably, whatever you try to accomplish takes on that same cast, that same heavy feeling of pressure.”
In June this year I pushed myself so hard I came down with shingles.
For perfectionists, life is having to work or achieve all the time. You are often at your limits. There is no time to stop, take a break and enjoy your achievements.
And that thing I think is going to bring satisfaction or peace? It never comes. Even if it did, I’d be onto the next thing anyway.
Are you a perfectionist too?
Here are 14 signs you could be a perfectionist:
- You have unrealistically high standards and beat yourself up when you don’t meet them: you are not satisfied with doing a great job. If it’s not perfect, it’s a failure.
- Your health is suffering because of daily stresses such as overwork
- There’s no balance between work and play. You feel under constant pressure and the fun is gone
- You are overly critical: of yourself and others around you. You will hone in on the imperfections in a piece of work or a situation and fixate on the rather than what went right
- You fear failure and that fear drives you.
- You rarely stop and enjoy achievements or successes. You just go onto the next thing.
- Your relationships with other people are suffering because you spend much of your time tying to get things perfect rather than enjoying their company
You have unrealistically high standards and beat yourself up when you don’t meet them
8. Much of your life goes towards keeping your life in order: you spend much of your time making lists, organising, planning, cleaning, repairing and little time being creative or letting go.
9. You can’t enjoy the journey: you’re so focused on the goal that the process of growing and striving isn’t enjoyable. You may find view many activities as ordeals to get through instead of enjoying them.
10. You have low self-esteem. Perfectionists often have low self-esteem because they are so self-critical. They can also be lonely or isolated their rigidity pushes others away.
11. You procrastinate. Because you have such high standards and you fear failure, you can become immobilised and feel overwhelmed, avoiding tasks.
12. You find it hard to take criticism and are defensive when given constructive feedback.
13. You feel overwhelmed by the amount you have to do and there never seems to be enough time.
14. You often find yourself irritated or frustrated by things or people who can’t get things right.
How does it feel to be a perfectionist?
Young and Klosko, talking about the unrelenting standards of a perfectionist, describe the feeling as “Pressure. You can never relax and enjoy life. You are always pushing, pushing, pushing, to get ahead.”
Perfectionists tend to fight to get ahead, to be the best at whatever they do, whether that is school, work, sport, hobbies, sex etc. They want to have the best house, the best car, the best job, make the most money or look the best.
The term “perfectionist” is from the point of view of the outside observer. Perfectionists themselves rarely view themselves as perfect, or even good enough. To them, it’s just a normal level of trying to achieve. Perfectionists are usually pretty good at whatever it is they do, but that is from other people’s point of view. Other people think you have achieved a lot, but you take your achievements for granted.
The pressure perfectionists put themselves under often manifests in physical ailments such as high blood pressure, ulcers, insomnia, colitis, fatigue, panic attacks, anxiety, chronic back pain, IBS, obesity, arthritis and skin problems.
Often, this inner turmoil can be difficult for others to see or even for the perfectionist themselves to acknowledge. That’s because perfectionists work hard to maintain an image of accomplishment and well-being. As a result, perfectionists who are struggling with psychological distress may be less likely to receive the help they need, causing even-deeper levels of emotional pain.
So what is being a perfectionist costing you?
It means that you are rarely content. The perfectionist’s approach to life means that you can find it hard to enjoy feelings such as love, peace, joy, pride, satisfaction, relaxation. Instead you feel disappointed, angry, frustrated, irritated and under pressure.
It can also cause you to pass these traits onto your children, which stops you from being able to fully enjoy them and causes them unhappiness.
Being a perfectionist means that you are rarely content: you can find it hard to enjoy feelings such as love, peace, satisfaction and relaxation
What can we do to manage perfectionism?
It’s hard to change, but I was inspired by this exercise from Young and Klosko which I have adapted for us.
- Write out the areas that you are a perfectionist in. This can be work, sport or athletic performance, cleanliness, appearance, money, popularity, status and so on.
- Note the advantages of having these high standards. Remember as you write these advantages down that although they might be things you benefit from, the reality is that you are not happy. What’s the point in having spotless house if you are running around like a manic trying to keep it clean and getting irritated with anyone who messes it up? What’s the point in having a high powered job if it means you have no time for fun?
- Then note down the disadvantages of pushing yourself to meet these high standards. These are all the things you sacrifice along the way. They could include health, happiness, relaxation, mood, your relationships with friends and family.
- Imagine what life would be like without these pressures. Sit back, close your eyes and let the image come. What might you be doing that could be more important or fulfilling?
- Consider where your perfectionism might have come from. Was the love you received as a child conditional? Did you have a parent that was a perfectionist? Did a parent use shame or criticism when you failed to meet their high expectations? Did perfectionism develop as a way of compensating for feelings of being not good enough, or feeling excluded or feeling like a failure?
- Ask yourself what would happen if you lowered your standards by 25%. This is hard, but recognise that there is a whole grey area between perfection and failure. You can still do something 70 or 80% and it be a good job. If you can accept doing things at a lower level you would probably still do really well without having to pay such a heavy price.
- Try to work out how much time you are allocating to making things perfect. Do you need to spend the amount of time you do on each task? What are you missing out on by working on it until it is perfect? What else could you be doing with that time? Perhaps try to set a time limit on each task and when the time is up, it’s up and it just has to be left the way it is.
- Seek guidance from others around you. Often, your high standards don’t seem high to you so get an objective opinion from someone who leads a balanced life.
- Change your schedule and/or your behaviour so you can get your emotional needs met. Delegate, give 70-80% instead of 100% and do things you enjoy. Find the fun in life.
Let go of perfection for deeper connection and a higher quality of life with those you love.