The Problem with Being a Perfectionist
I am a diagnosed perfectionist. That places me in a cohort of people who are entirely focused at seeking to be the best at everything we do. As a consequence we are generally competitive and have really high standards for themselves and of others. All these are commonly seen by society as “positive traits” which creates an affirmative feedback loop for the individual, rewarding what is damaging in the long term.
My psychologist referred me to a website run by an institute focused on mental illness connected to a reputable university. The website had a 2 hour quiz with a very intricate and had a specific set of questions asking about my thoughts around certain situations and attitudes towards certain circumstances. When I received the diagnosis from the test I was somewhat bemused. I was found to have two characteristic traits on a scale determined by the psychological academic community; they were: “high perfection” and “high inner critical voice.” The findings were an eye opener and began a journey of self exploration and understanding.
What is a Perfectionist?
To be perfect is to be flawless, to be without fault or defect and to have all the desired qualities that fill a certain set of criteria. Perfection is something that is the embodiment of perfect or someone (or something) that has the highest degree of excellence in a certain area. Perfectionism is an excessively heightened standard or an unachievable ideal existing in someone’s personal philosophy or behavioral attitude which demands perfection in themselves and in others. Anything less than perfect is written off and rejected. Perfectionism is also a strong driver of ambition, the desire to achieve and having high levels of conscientiousness.
Perfectionists chase perfection everywhere in their life — generally their perfectionistic tendencies are particularly focused at one specific area to detrimental effect of the other parts of their life. Since they seek perfection, the goals they set are always beyond their reach. They like to push the boundaries in terms of the things they want to achieve, engaging in an all-or-nothing mindset and their self-talk is generally pushing them to “deliver and produce results or else”.
Symptoms and Behaviors of Perfectionism
There is no one symptom that defines perfectionism. Like all ailments, it takes a group of behaviors to help define the underlying disorder. Perfectionists can live a productive life without being diagnosed.
Here are a few symptoms and behaviors of a perfectionist:
- A lone ‘doer’ — Enjoys doing things or training on their own
- A relentless pursuit of high standards
- May exhibit bipolar tendencies (ups and downs) but is not truly bipolar
- Self-critical and critical of others
- Indecisiveness; prone to analysis paralysis
- Addict/Addictive personality
- Compulsive behaviour/addict; alcoholism; sexual compulsions and dysfunctions; drug abuse
- Pessimist (but pretends to be an optimist)
- Never ending feeling of overwhelm (as a result of all the unattainable goals)
According to some researchers, perfectionism exists on a continuum from what could be seen as “normal perfectionism” to “neurotic perfectionism”. Different people would exhibit their own perfectionism to varying degrees.
Perfectionism is a part of the positive characteristic that helps drive people in their pursuits and goals. It is the driver for their ambition, how they are able to strive for excellence and achieve what they set out to achieve.
In this way, healthy perfectionism is positively associated with socially admirable characteristics such as:
- High self-esteem (which for perfectionists comes and goes)
- Highly organised, strong organisational skills
- Intelligent, clever of highly skilled in their area of focus
- Conscientious, high attention to detail.
A normal or “adaptive perfectionist” would operate at peak capacity. Their organisational and logistical skills are finely optimised to deliver efficiency in their scheduling and managing their time. They have a high self-esteem and the confidence in their abilities which can motivate and fuel their ambition and energise people working with them.
“Unhealthy perfectionism” could be seen as an oxymoronic statement as it is the destructive pursuit of unreachable goals. The search for perfection with each goal and activity creates and reinforces emotional and psychological turmoil for the perfectionist. While there are “benefits” to perfectionism, there are the negative consequences to it that we listed in the previous chapter. And because of the overwhelming list of the negative effects, it should be considered as a negative trait.
The other side of perfectionism leads the individual into opposition towards the positive traits:
- Low self-esteem
- Procrastination and avoidance
- Lack of ambition; underachievement
A different phrase to describe unhealthy perfectionism is “neurotic perfectionism” or “dysfunctional perfectionism”. Neurotic perfectionists are usually very rigid, tense, confused, indecisive, anxious and emotionally drained. People in this state of neuroticism are overly concerned about mistakes, doubtful and have a warped perception that others have excessive expectations of their work.
They essentially set themselves up in a “no-win scenario” since their ambitions are unattainable. A perfectionist is like an accident waiting to happen. It is only a matter of time that their behavioural tendencies would lead them to neuroticism. Their self esteem is stapled to their achievements and to the end result thus need constant approval.
Neurotic perfectionists are also guilt-ridden. They don’t believe in their own skills and capabilities and often have the fear of being ridiculed as a fraud, or exposed as a trickster, imposter or a fake. They also become fixated with past mistakes.
From Perfection to Depression
Perfectionism and its hunger for achieving ambitions naturally drive an upward spiral of success. Set a goal, meet it, set a higher goal meet it, set an even higher goal and meet that too, until finally it all falls apart and you can’t maintain the pace. Success begets success and perfectionism tricks you by always wanting to raise the bar higher and higher through ever increasing optimism as each goal is achieved. Sometimes I felt that if I were to have plotted my emotional moods on a graph somewhat like a stock market chart. From feeling great where my stocks are soaring and priceless to feeling like crap and my stock value crashing to worthlessness. The only difference with my stock is that it can dip below negative.
The chart would be characterized by major peaks and troughs when seen from a distance. It isn’t a predictable pattern like the ocean waves and tides or a constant sine wave of ups and downs. Upon closer inspection of the chart you would see that each major peak and trough is also composed of more peaks and troughs. So when you look at the chart in the distance, it is like looking at the monthly time period, seeing how in some months the stock would be soaring and happy and in other months it would be close to worthless or even dipped below the zero and turned depressive. But within those months of happiness and sadness, there would be days of ups and downs — those are the minor peaks and troughs. When you’re in the months of happiness, you can still be faced with sadness and setbacks but it is easier to recover since you’re in an overall ‘happy’ mood.
Consequences of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is a double edged sword. It could be perceived as a wholly positive trait by the unaware. It is after all what we’re sold on everyday by the media, by our peers and family on “looking perfect” and being “successful”. Symptoms of perfectionism which I detailed previously can lead to consequences good and bad but are inevitably terrible outcomes for mental health in the long term.
Negative Coping Strategies
Being a perfectionist initiates a few different negative feedback loops, but I believe that at the core of these loops are negative coping strategies. While perfectionism drives you to be perfect, the engine (you) have to cope with these stresses surrounding achieving these goals in reality. Everyone needs to cope with stress in some way, there are positive as well as negative coping strategies.
In the negative feedback loop system, my own maladaptive coping style is generally avoidance and more specifically in the avoidance category, I employ procrastination strategy quite frequently.
We will look at coping strategies as well as procrastination with a little more depth in later chapters.
Missed Goals; Not Meeting Unrealistic Expectations
I once had many goals, many of them ambitious and I was deluded enough to think that I can accomplish them all and all of them completed to my exacting standards. The cycle usually begins with the bright idea, the spark that gets me excited about something where I then proceed to write down this goal and make it my obligation to complete to the best of my ability.
After the honeymoon stage and when things start to become a little more involved and I start to push the boundaries of my skills and hit some roadblocks in terms of other dependencies (e.g. real world limitations which my planning didn’t consider or purposely overlooked) then stress is introduced. And with stress you need to employ a coping strategy. After the coping strategy is applied the next phase is either success by finishing the goal or reaching a milestone closer to the goal. Or I miss the goal. Or just fail to meet my unrealistic expectation. (Or I completed the goal but it just wasn’t done to my high standard).
This was one of the areas which I found that I needed to work on was setting realistic goals and expectations which we will come back to in the recovery section of this book. It was an obvious and easy solution but in reality it was very difficult to let go and took many months — from 9 to 12 months to completely let go. I was attached to each one of them and I was hooked by some obsession, passion or connection to complete each one. It felt like a grieving process, putting each one to rest in the most respectful manner I could.
An important part of this process was recognising what was truly important to me and reprioritising my life. A famous author summed up what the primary human needs as “to live, to love, to learn and leave a legacy.” Using this as a foundational guide to help me weed out my goals I was able to prioritise my life accordingly.
Unfocused & Overwhelmed
Having too many goals, too many things in the pipeline brewed an overwhelmed feeling where there was a physically heavy burden on my shoulders. Sometimes this stress would psychosomatically implant itself into my shoulders and neck and I would feel the pain and stiffness in turning my head.
It all comes down to being realistic with setting goals and actions. At the beginning of each day when I plan out my activities (or at the beginning of the week or the month) I need to first prioritise what absolutely needs to be done and set a realistic timeline.
The most deceptive tasks were the ones I knew I can easily complete easily but the catch was that the task was immense in size. Theoretically I could complete the task on a shortened timeline but realistically I would get tired or bored so I should allow for that. The attitude to bring to the table in these circumstances is “business as usual.” With setbacks, the show must go on and you need to just accept things as they are and keep at it, don’t give up and keep chipping away at it.
Another dread of mine is getting recognition. This could mean receiving awards or on the rare occasion getting a pat on the back or complimented on my looks — my internal critical inner voice would come whispering “I don’t deserve this.” “I don’t deserve to feel happy, I didn’t attain it and thus I don’t deserve to be happy.” I feel guilty when I think I didn’t deserve the award and I feel like a fraud.
The feeling of guilt is exacerbated when I receive an award where I didn’t put much effort or worked hard for it or if I received commendation on something I had worked on but didn’t believe I reached the standard I set or would have liked to reach.
Perfectionists are the perennial procrastinator. I believe that the root behaviour of procrastination is driven by the superior expectations of self which leads to over commitment with promises being broken to self or others and finally surrender. Procrastination is part of the vicious cycle that perfectionists put themselves through:
- Set goal or high expectation
- Attempt at reaching the goal.
- Hit a road block. May attempt a few times but the same or a series of road blocks appears.
- Keep promising to keep going later. And later…. And later.
- Shame at the failure to meet the goal or expectation whilst not admitting failure.
Step 4 usually happens if I don’t want to do something, if the task doesn’t seem enjoyable, challenging or engaging or if I perceive a task to be impossible, insurmountable or impossible to achieve. However this cycle isn’t as definitive as you would think it is. If the road block is achievable and continue to overcome the series of obstacles, the perfectionist will easily meet their goal because they won’t even think about procrastinating; rather they will be obsessive and passionate about their particular focus.
Perfectionists Need to Set Realistic Expectations
A lot of perfectionism has to do with unrealistically high expectations of yourself and others. It can be regarded as the keystone of perfectionism and if you’ve reached this far into the book you’re making good progress. You may be wondering why tackling this integral part of perfectionism so late in the book. The reason is that to effectively get through it and treat it, you need to build a good foundation from which to confront perfectionism. To attack perfectionism directly and succeed is less effective than going through the journey and learning about yourself, seeking help, learning about creating small experiments and becoming self aware are integral parts of this program.
I recognized two fears which kept making an appearance in my reflections and which I believed held me back from progress:
- The fear of getting it all wrong.
- The fear of social ridicule over realised failure.
There were two different streams of thought for my fear of getting it all wrong: I remember thinking that “I won’t be able to fix” my problem perfectly. And because it couldn’t be fixed, my thinking became defeatist and my logic was flawed: “If I couldn’t do it right, it wasn’t worth doing.” The other angle I feared was that if I wasn’t to worry about details, start letting go, start delegating, and start accepting things less than perfect that I would make a mistake and it would all be wrong. I was worrying that I would start to miss important things which would make my work inferior and not the best that they could be. And because of it being inferior equated to my feelings and belief that I was a failure.
The paradox that perfectionists face with this particular fear is that in order to achieve anything they need to complete things perfectly, and to complete things perfectly, takes infinite time (which of course isn’t realistic and usually time considerations don’t really factor into a perfectionists thinking).
The other fear I had which was holding me back from progress relates to expectations and goals was “the fear of social ridicule over realised failure”. There are traders in the stock market who generate an income by buying and selling stocks. Generally if you buy a company’s stock at a low price and you sell it at a higher price you make a profit. The stock price is constantly fluctuating, moving up and down so when a trader has bought stocks, whilst in their trade they could either have a profit or loss on paper. This concept of a paper loss or a paper profit is the analogy from which this particular fear draws its parallels.
A perfectionist never fails. Or so they think. They will at all cost try to achieve what they set out to do and what they told others that they will do. If they fail, they shy away from the world as I have detailed earlier in this book. Just like a losing trade where the paper loss is never realised until you actually make the final trade to close off the transaction, the perfectionist will never fail because they never come to accept the failure and claim the failure as their own. They will be always in denial.
I was afraid of the social ridicule over accepting failure. Because once I accept failure, I would have to claim responsibility and make my failure public knowledge. I would be that case study people would refer to or that cautionary tale that parents tell their kids. Claiming responsibility meant shame and embarrassment to my family and to my personal brand.
Self-Talk or the Critical Inner Voice and Perfectionism
It was quite difficult to listen to my self-talk to discern what was the Critical Inner Voice (CIV) and what was my actual thought. The following statements could be considered to be the CIV, but if I was consciously thinking about it when the thought was formed then the statement would be classified as a negative thought/self-talk or a negative belief rather than being the CIV.
- I’m a failure.
- It’s all my fault.
- Nothing good ever happens to me.
- I’m worthless.
- Life’s not worth living.
- People will be better off without me.
The CIV I found is that enigmatic character which lurks in the shadows that is ready to pounce given the opportunity. It is basically a version of you, a critical, unsympathetic, judgmental nit-picker who throws in a fault-finding unsympathetic statement every time there is a particular moment. That particular moment is an opportune moment when you are either planning something or making a decision or when you are ruminating about something. In my experience, I didn’t have the voice popping out of moments when I was busy doing something; either working, watching TV or meditating. However it would manifest in moments when I need to make a decision or when something I was experiencing cued it to appear.
Recovery from Perfectionism
My search for perfection was personally damaging. It can’t be attained. The search for the perfect shape, the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect partner, the perfect ambition, the perfect… everything.
My addictive behaviours have bastardised how I think and perceive the world in such a damaging fashion that at times during my recovery period I feel like I was climbing a mountain that could never be climbed. Or it was like trying to fix an old car with a multitude of problems.
If you spoke to me a year or two ago I would have thought that I needed to eradicate what was wrong with me. We need to get a scalpel to my brain and extract out the bad. Just to get rid of my perfectionism 100%.
But as I went through this journey and rediscovering who I truly am, I’m began to discover that while I didn’t believe it knowingly — subconsciously I saw everything in their black and white absolutes.
Will I be totally and absolutely cleared of my perfectionism? Probably not. As a perfectionist I find that challenging to accept that while I’m perfectly aware of my behaviours from time to time — that I will perhaps never be an UN-perfectionist. I can strive to be an optimalist and also to be more accepting of my own circumstances but I will never be perfectly unperfect.
And having gone through this journey of recovery — I’m okay with an imperfect resolution.
Finally, a few last thoughts on how to climb out of perfectionism:
- Realise that while the path might not be straight and perfect, it’s more important to be headed in a positive and well-intentioned direction.
- Understand that you don’t need to do everything immediately or right now. Patience, consistency and persistence are more important than all or nothing immediate actions.
- Be fair to yourself: stop setting yourself for failure and start setting realistic and reasonable goals. Allow yourself to be flexible when required.
- Become aware that you are a human being complete with imperfections, fallibility and failings.
- Appreciate that failure is okay. Cultivate a culture of recovery to build up resilience and learn to pick yourself up.
- Have an attitude of gratitude.
- Celebrate achievement and success instead of just moving on to the next goal or action. Reward your efforts of hitting milestones and goals.
- Learn to let go of idealistic, perfectionistic and high standards.
- Appreciate that success does not equate to perfect. You don’t need to be the best, be the first or the favourite.
- Take time out to journal about your thoughts and invest time to meditate and be mindful.
Excerpt from Overcoming Perfectionism: Defeat Depression & Embrace Mindfulness by Gerald Pappas. Copyright Gerald Pappas © 2015. All rights reserved. You may reproduce or reprint this excerpt without permission, but it would be nice for you to drop me a line!
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Photo credit: Michael Parker, via Creative Commons