Are You a Perfectionist?

A motto of Silicon Valley is “Fail fast. Fail often.” To the perfectionist, this sounds like the worst thing ever. While most people would rather succeed than fail, a perfectionist bases much of their self-worth on success.

Life coach Carly Smudre sums up her experience by saying her perfectionism “would swoop in to ‘save the day.'”

If I just worked harder, was more reliable & more impressive… I’d never be criticized.

If I just looked better, was more attractive, & always had something funny to say… I’d never be rejected.

If I just appeared like I was in total control of my life, then maybe would feel more confident in my choices, more secure in my relationships, and free from this debilitating feeling that I “wasn’t enough”.

In my own life, perfectionism manifests itself in a few ways. I can beat myself up over things from years ago that I didn’t handle perfectly. I haven’t decorated many walls in our house even though we’ve been here a year because I know it won’t look like an interior designer did it. I want to compose songs but even in my head I’m not happy with the results so I never write down the notes.

It’s not all bad. I will share ways that I deal with my perfectionism in Part 2.

Are You a Perfectionist?

Signs of Perfectionism

Not all of these will apply to every perfectionist. However, if you are a perfectionist it is likely you can identify with at least a few of them.

No room for mistakes

Perfectionists have a hard time accepting mistakes both in themselves and others. Directed toward yourself, this causes undue stress. Directed toward others, it quickly creates resentment.

Unappeasable ambition

A perfectionist may not aim for the top of the ladder right away, but they are never content where they are. As soon as one goal is met, another springs up in its place. (This is my life.)

Black-and-white thinking

Some examples of this are:

If I am not perfect, I am a failure.

If I cannot do something well, I will not do it at all.

If I need help, I am weak.

If I am not the top achiever, I am worthless.

Read like this, the logical fallacy is obvious. There is middle ground but, as a perfectionist, it can be hard for you to see it.

All-or-nothing approach

I just mentioned this above in the “If I cannot do something well, I will not do it at all.” This manifests itself in me in my lack of decorating and fear of composing. My husband also shows this tendency in his reluctance to do new things unless he knows he will be good at them.

When you think all-or-nothing, what you really get is nothing-and-nothing.

Celestine Chua

Focusing on negative potentials

Since perfectionists hold themselves to such high standards, they expect that other people will too. You may fear that people will think you’re lazy if you take a sick day.  You fear other people will laugh at you if you make a mistake during a presentation. The fears of perfectionists are often that other people will think poorly of them, and they try to avoid this by being perfect.

Extremely hard on themselves

Perfectionists are their own greatest critics and rarely need others to point out their flaws to them. In fact, I have been extremely grateful in a few cases where I made big (at least in my mind) mistakes, but they were taken matter-of-factly by the people involved.

Excessive caution

This is hard to see yourself, because if you’re doing it you don’t think it’s excessive. Proofreading a document more than twice is probably excessive. “Excessive” would relate to diminishing returns. How much benefit would you get from checking again vs. the time spent?

Agonizing over small details

Some things matter and some things don’t. If you’re stressed about a color being slightly the wrong shade, that is probably something that doesn’t matter in the end. What you think of as a “mistake” may not seem like one to others. Outside perspectives can help you identify this kind of situation.

Depressed when goals are unmet

Goals are part of a perfectionist’s identity. Failing to meet a goal often creates an identity crisis or despair that they will meet their own expectations. They may wonder “what if?” in an attempt to figure out where things went wrong.

Cons of Perfectionism

Setup for failure

Perfectionists often create impossible standards. Since the standards are impossible, this is a recipe for failure. Creating a more realistic definition of success allows you to succeed at goals instead of falling short.

Overlooks the positives

Perfectionists are so focused on avoiding negative outcomes, that they often miss the positives. Even if it is pointed out to them, they may brush it off as unimportant compared to this imperfection that must be fixed.

Feeds stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues

Perfectionism is linked to many mental health issues. It is healthy to strive for goals, but expecting yourself to reach impossible standards strains your mental health.

Misses opportunities

Perfectionists often wait for “the right moment” to do something – the moment when it is sure to come out perfectly. Often they will pass by opportunities from fear that they are not the best opportunity. However, that perfect opportunity may never come or take a long time to come, while several good opportunities have already passed.

Leads to overwhelm

High standards mixed with sensitivity to all the things that could be improved creates an unwieldy to-do list and overwhelm. As you can see from the links to my related articles, this is a topic close to my heart. I often overwhelm myself and have learned some ways to avoid that.

Harms relationships

Perfectionists hold others to the same high standards that they hold themselves to. Those standards are usually unrealistic and don’t have room for the mistakes we all make. The people around you can easily feel resentful of being held to a goal they can never meet.

Creates inaction

Since perfectionists are aware when they cannot meet their own goals, they often avoid beginning work on the goal at all. If you don’t try, you can’t fail. Procrastination is not always a sign of perfectionism, but it is a symptom.

Analysis paralysis is another way perfectionism creates inaction. In the attempt to do something perfectly, the perfectionist gets stuck in a loop of never-ending research.

Increases insomnia

The link between perfectionism and insomnia is very interesting to me since I did not come across it when I wrote about how to get enough sleep a few months ago. A study followed 70 patients with persistent insomnia from a sleep disorders clinic. Researchers found that these patients had significantly higher than normal scores on perfectionism.

Fighting Perfectionism

Things to Think About

I find that perfectionists tend to focus on lack while having very harsh expectations of themselves. They never rest until they have finished what they are doing. They are rarely satisfied with what they do. They are always looking for mistakes, issues to correct. And they don’t celebrate much, even when they have done a good job — instead taking that as a given.

Celestine Chua

This all paints a very bleak picture of perfectionism. How ironic that perfectionists are so focused on other problems they do not see the problems they create for themselves.

The degree of perfectionism can vary from person-to-person so you may not suffer from all these symptoms. In Part 2 of this series we will talk about ways to handle perfectionism, and decrease its effect in your life.

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