Perfectionism is characterized as a personality trait in which a person strives for flawlessness in all parts of life. Perfectionists have unattainably high standards for themselves. They are exceedingly concerned about others’ evaluation of them, hardly ever satisfied with their performance, and blame themselves for when things go wrong–even when they are not directly involved or responsible. For the perfectionist, mistakes are felt to be personal failures and/or personal deficits. Mistakes are not seen as a normal part of learning and growing that we all experience.
When perfectionists perform at what they perceive to be “below their standard” they become overly critical of themselves; damaging their self-esteem. This happens because the perfectionists’ self-worth is dependent upon productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring oneself to achieve lofty and unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment and feelings of frustration. As a result, perfectionists often berate themselves with an abusive internal dialogue. They tell themselves they are stupid, inadequate, lazy, and may believe something is fundamentally wrong with them.
A surprising consequence of perfectionism is chronic procrastination. Many people interpret their procrastination as not caring or as simply being “lazy.” Putting tasks off is the perfectionist’s way of protecting himself or herself from the underlying fear that they will not complete the task perfectly, so they put it off as long as possible.
Not all perfectionists are concerned with only productivity and accomplishments. A small subset of perfectionists is focused on achieving perfect physical appearance. We are surrounded by glossy magazine images, celebrities, and billboard pictures of flawless men and women who look “perfect,” mainly due to digital enhancements and Photoshopping. Perfect looks have become highly valued since they symbolize success, happiness, and admiration by others. Consequently, this subset of perfectionists is at greater risk for developing Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. Perfectionists whose self-esteem is more reliant on productivity and accomplishing goals are also susceptible to developing BDD and eating disorders in addition to depression, anxiety disorders, and problems in their personal relationships and careers.
When perfectionists are able to understand the underlying feelings feeding their behaviors, they become aware of the vicious cycle their perfectionism creates and the negative impact in has on their overall happiness. Perfectionists tend to live narrow lives and often do not reach their full potential. They refuse to try new things for fear that they will make a mistake. Fortunately, perfectionism can be treated with the help of a mental professional. Treatment focuses on helping the perfectionist to develop a realistic appraisal of him or herself, develop the ability to enjoy the process of attaining goals, help the perfectionist to accept mistakes as a normal part of learning and life, and develop a positive sense of self independent of one’s performance on a specific task or accomplishment.
Treatment modalities for perfectionism include cognitive-behavioral therapy (challenging the irrational thoughts and formation of alternative ways of coping and thinking, psychoanalytic therapy (analyzes the underlying motives and issues), and group therapy (where two or more individuals work with one or more therapists).
How to Cope
1. Become aware of your negative self-dialogue. Harsh and critical self-assessments reinforce perfectionism and procrastination.
2. Practice self-compassion. When we are compassionate with ourselves or fear of failure is not exaggerated. Mistakes are understood as being a natural and normal part of learning and life in general.
3. Take the time examine if your goals and expectations are attainable. If they are not, give yourself the permission to change them.
4. Break goals down into smaller steps.
5. Examine your irrational fears of failure with a professional. A professional can help with putting your irrational fears into prospective and help you to reach your full potential—living a full and rich life.