Perfectionism, or Striving for Excellence?

Perfectionism, or Striving for Excellence?

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A few years ago, saying in a job interview that one of your strengths was being a perfectionist was desirable. In today’s society, we’re gaining more awareness of the drawbacks of perfectionism and that it’s still an issue on the rise. For example, take a look at social media usage. You might spend a long time trying to take the “perfect” picture so you can present yourself in a favorable way. Or maybe you avoid posting altogether because you think you don’t have that “perfect” picture. Sometimes it can feel like life is a perpetual race towards achieving more, having more, or getting more validation from others.

It’s okay if this sounds like you — you’re certainly not the only one! If you’re wondering if you struggle with perfectionism, ask yourself these questions: Have you ever wondered when it will feel like you’re good enough? Are you constantly trying to please others? Or perhaps, your life seems perfect from the outside but you’re afraid you won’t be able to live up to the high expectations (set by yourself and/or others)? You might feel that, despite your achievements, degrees, accolades, promotions, etc., you’re still not good enough. Perhaps you think that since meeting your goals felt challenging, it means you’re less than. If any of these scenarios and/or questions resonate with you, you could have perfectionistic tendencies. 

Perfectionism usually develops in people that deeply care about excelling in different areas of their lives. Perfectionists often seek external validation to prove their self-worth. For example, you might feel like your sense of self is directly tied to what you do, how well you do it, how much you make, or what people say about you. There’s a difference between striving for excellence and being a perfectionist —  let’s explore which is which!

 

What is perfectionism?

According to “The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism,” by Sharon Martin, MSW, LCSW, perfectionism is the drive to achieve more, be more, and prove yourself. It is the quest to be perfect or without weakness. There are three main characteristics of perfectionists:

  1. Unrealistically high standards: While high standards may help you achieve goals, solve problems, and learn, perfectionists might strive to do all of that without making mistakes. Sometimes there can be a mindset that mistakes mean failure and/or inadequacy. This belief can be problematic because we all make mistakes, and they are necessary to learn and grow. 
  2. Achievement-based sense of self-worth: If you are a perfectionist, you might find that the more items you check off your list or demands you meet, the better you feel about yourself. When you do not accomplish all your tasks, you might feel like you’re not good enough, leading to a decline in confidence that is difficult to bounce back from.
  3. Fear: Whether it’s fear of failure, rejection, criticism, embarrassment, and/or disappointing others, these worries can often fuel perfectionism. You might find that your failure to meet these self-imposed standards seems tragic. Perhaps the stakes of failing appear so high that you may be constantly striving for perfection to feel good enough. Sometimes these fears can lead to an inability to take chances and a tendency to continue to do things that you feel you are already good at.

 

What are the different types of perfectionism?

Perfectionism shows up differently for everyone. Your perfectionism might appear in only one area of your life and it could be apparent or discreet to others. Some perfectionists look and act like they’re on top of every area of their lives, while another group of perfectionists might struggle, guided by perfectionistic thoughts and beliefs. Individuals in this second group don’t appear to be perfect to others but they tend to procrastinate because they feel they can’t achieve perfection.      

Psychologist researchers Paul L. Hewitt and Gordon L. Flett established three types of perfectionism:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism means that you set the standard of being perfect. You may criticize yourself when you make mistakes, focus on your flaws and missteps, and believe that you can remedy them by engaging in self-criticism.
  2. Other-oriented perfectionism occurs when you set unrealistic standards for others. You might expect others to be perfect and blame them for their errors. You may also be critical of others, which can create relationship conflict.
  3. Socially-prescribed perfectionism happens when you think others have unrealistically high standards that you need to meet. Perhaps your self-worth is tied to what others think of you and your ability to meet their expectations.

 

What are the negative consequences of perfectionism?

Understanding some of the negative psychological effects of perfectionism may help you identify how it is impacting your life:

  • Difficulty recovering from unplanned situations
  • Low tolerance for mistakes
  • Self-criticism/judgments
  • People-pleasing tendencies
  • Overworking
  • Procrastinating
  • Highly critical of others
  • Guilt about needing rest, relaxation, and/or fun
  • Difficulty setting boundaries with others
  • Anger related to unmet expectations
  • Missed opportunities for growth
  • Perfectionistic thinking

 

How can I start to change my perfectionistic behavior?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you examine and modify your perfectionistic tendencies. In our next blog post about CBT for Perfectionism, we’ll discuss the origins of perfectionism and specific strategies to let go of perfectionistic traits that create stress and anxiety. CBT teaches you how to be less critical of yourself, slow down, and ask yourself what you want out of life.

 

What can I do if I need support?

As a perfectionist in recovery, I know how beneficial it can be to learn to strive for excellence while feeling like you’re already worthy! Sometimes this requires help. If you’re noticing perfectionist traits that are negatively impacting your life, it’s a good idea to seek help from a licensed mental health professional. Online therapy at Amwell is a convenient option — you can select your own provider and get support from the comfort of your home. 

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