I never thought I was a perfectionist.
Sure, in high school, I spent 2 hours primping, got straight A’s and mastered the flute.
But it wasn’t a problem. What can I say? I like a pristine look and performance.
After college, my wanderlust led me to teach English in western France. I hung up my vintage rucksack. And settled down with my newlywed husband, Loïc.
Happily ever after?
I wanted Loïc to look and act “perfect”. But he had sloppy dishwashing skills, a messy car and rough mannerisms—things I thought were cute when we dated, but now drove me crazy.
As a result, it took me 20 years and many blowups with Loïc to realize my perfectionism drained my happiness.
Many people don’t think of perfectionism as a problem. So, what exactly is perfectionism? And why is it harmful?
What’s the difference between excellence and perfectionism?
In 20+ years of research, Drs. Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett and their colleagues found perfectionism linked to:
- low self-esteem
- high blood pressure
- eating disorders
Despite these consequences, other researchers point out how sky-high standards give rise to phenomenal athletes and artists. Think of self-described perfectionists Serena Williams and Beyoncé, for example.
These researchers call this type of perfectionism “adaptive”.
“Adaptive” perfectionists see mistakes as opportunities. “Maladaptive” perfectionists, on the other hand, perceive mistakes as proof they’re a failure.
Though I’m a recovering perfectionist, I sometimes forget.
I tend to invest too much of myself in everything I do, from painting my nails to penning this article. The habit of tying my self-worth to my achievements dies hard.
When you strive for excellence, the joy of a challenge or job well done energizes you.
When you strive for perfection, fear of failure and disapproval motivates you.
However, Dr. Hewitt says, “I don’t think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive.” Moreover, high standards change, depending on the situation and person.
So, besides serious illness, how do we know when we’ve crossed the line?
- Pay attention to your body. Do you feel particularly tense? Where—in your shoulders, neck or belly?
- Notice your thoughts and emotions. Are you beating yourself up? Do you feel frustrated, depressed, anxious or angry while you work?
- Acknowledge when your standards get in the way. Do you have trouble meeting a deadline, finishing a task or trusting others?
Also, check out the 20 signs below. If you’re striving for perfection, bravo for realizing it.
Take a deep breath, drink some water or try grounding techniques.
Not all perfectionists are the same
I was 12 years old when I got my first makeover.
My best friend Nat popped open her teal makeup box and grabbed the tweezers. As she shaped my brows, I breathed through clenched teeth.
Then she picked up one makeup pencil after another. Small brushes stroked my eyes, lips and cheeks. Nat worked with the fervor of an artist.
I turned around and looked in the mirror.
Wait, that’s me?
Nat paraded me into the living room. Her family showered me with compliments. In the past, only my mom told me I was pretty.
Then, a strange thing happened.
I walked with my head up and shoulders back. My crush winked at me. Popular girls talked to me.
Except for my brains, no one paid attention to me until then. So, I concluded, If I perfect myself, inside and out, I’ll be accepted.
And I proceeded to perfect myself for the next 20 years.
According to this study, there are 3 types of perfectionism
- Self-oriented perfectionists set high personal standards that motivate them. These so-called “adaptive” perfectionists tend to succeed more and feel more positive, but some studies disagree.
- Other-oriented perfectionists hold friends, family and significant others to unrealistic standards. This can lead to blame, lack of trust and loneliness.
- Socially prescribed perfectionists submit to high standards placed on them by their family, work, culture or society in order to avoid rejection. This can lead to anxiety, low self-esteem and self-harm.
Some people identify with one type of perfectionism, while others might identify with all 3 to some degree.
What’s more, you might be perfectionistic in one area of your life, but not another. Different domains of perfectionism include:
- Close relationships
- How one speaks/writes
- Physical appearance
Which type do you identify with?
Though I can identify with all 3, the most dominant one is socially prescribed perfectionism.
I grew up with a hypercritical father whose tough love shattered my confidence. Every success seemed to vanish. The next assignment or project would demand more time and energy.
As an adult, the pressure weighed down on my shoulders. Yet the more I “perfected” myself, the more life seemed to approve.
- Excelled in school, a top-notch college accepted me.
- Took hours to get ready, men ogled me.
- Made a lavish dinner, my friends praised me.
- Controlled every event detail, my boss lauded me.
But at what price?
An inordinate amount of time, energy, money and unhappiness. My wrists felt numb from the handcuffs—I had given up my soul to please others.
Moreover, it was never enough. Because the bar would rise after each success.
That’s when I came up for air.
20 signs your perfectionism is a problem
Besides the more serious signs mentioned earlier, here are 20 signs of perfectionism (source).
- Setting unrealistic standards. If I meet these standards, I’ll be accepted, loved or worthy. You struggle with loosening your standards.
- Procrastinating. You don’t take on an activity or you feel anxious about it, unless you know you can do it perfectly.
- Focusing on results. You have a fixed mindset.
- Redoing tasks. You repeatedly redo or check your work until it’s “just right”. As a result, you may take much longer to finish.
- Over-thinking. In an attempt to control, you plan and analyze excessively.
- Seeing mistakes as failure. Your self-worth fluctuates according to your wins and mistakes, big and small.
- Taking pleasure in someone else’s failure. This temporarily makes you feel better about your own defaults.
- Comparing yourself to others. It’s common to make assumptions about someone and then measure yourself up to that illusion.
- Worrying excessively about what others think. You want to ensure no one sees your flaws.
- Feeling guilty. Shoulds and should-nots wrack your brain.
- Using fear as motivation. The fear of failure motivates perfectionists.
- Thinking all-or-nothing. You either succeed or fail; you abhor risks.
- Craving approval. You live in fear of rejection.
- Judging others. You hold others to unrealistic standards and criticize them for their shortcomings.
- Trouble delegating. You don’t trust others. If I ask for help, I’m weak.
- Closing yourself off. Keeping loved ones at arm’s distance ensures you don’t expose your vulnerability and get hurt.
- Taking things personally. Any criticism puts a dent in your self-esteem.
- Beating yourself up. Since the bar constantly rises, you never feel good enough.
- Lacking creativity. The fear of failure squashes your voice and inhibits the flow.
- Feeling deep shame. Ultimately, you believe you’re unworthy.
Whew, you made it to the end of the list! 🙂
The truth about perfectionism
Have you heard of defense mechanisms?
Like blaming, people-pleasing and isolating.
News flash: Perfecting is also a defense mechanism.
Defense mechanisms are learned behaviors that protect us from difficult emotions. Somewhere along the line, your human need to be accepted and cared for weren’t honored.
So, you learned it was easier to avoid feeling hurt, afraid, sad or vulnerable—or downright not good enough—by perfecting yourself.
The logic is understandable: If my performance and appearance match others’ expectations, I won’t be rejected, judged and shamed.
However, in the long run, you still don’t feel good enough, deep down.
Perfectionism was only meant to be a temporary band-aid. Above all, don’t let it stomp on your ability to love, connect with others and feel worthy.
“I believe there’s even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world….
We should be born with a warning label similar to the ones that come on cigarette packages:
Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.
Sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think just isn’t worth it…. In the end, being true to ourselves is the best gift we can give the people we love.
—Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Come as you are
We all want to feel loved and accepted. You’re doing the best you can. So, it’s no use beating yourself up.
Instead, dare to own your “flaws”.
Take a deep breath.
And show up as you are.
Need help letting go of perfectionism? Take a look at my one-to-one coaching services.
Please seek professional care if you believe you may have a condition.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help perfectionists let go of self-doubt, fear of failure and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter and get access to free resources.
Further reading to let go of perfectionism: