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At face value some perfectionists can be pretty intimidating. They often appear to have it all. Shiny shoes, matching bag, a tidy home and car, immaculately groomed children. However often this is simply a veneer, a thinly veiled façade that actually hides some complex goings on beneath the still, perfect waters of their existence.
Others constantly strive for this nirvana as their ideal, and beat themselves into a burnt out emotional mess trying to achieve it against the constant tide of daily existence, feeling like a failure for not achieving their lofty ideals.
The truth is that perfectionism is an utterly exhausting and unrelenting freight train that constantly plows through your emotions and sense of self-worth. The constant comparisons and self-prescribed set of non-negotiable rules means that the journey is heading in only one direction: unhappiness, a lack of fulfilment and a sense of failure.
Linked to many other disorders (such as depression, anxiety, self-loathing and imposter syndrome to name a few), perfectionists often exist in a state of fear:
Fear of failure
Fear of not being good enough
Fear of not achieving
Fear of being laughed at.
In constantly striving to move away from these fears, perfectionists continually exist in a negative space. Perfectionists rarely ‘live in the now’. They tend to focus on goals, action, and end results. The seldom enjoy the journey, and often don’t see joy in daily existence as their attention is focussed like a laser beam on achieving the desired end result. In addition, they are constantly on the lookout for threats and issues, trapped in an exhausting cycle of beating themselves up.
Perfectionists are often hidden procrastinators. They might like to give an outward image of someone busily beavering away. Often, on closer scrutiny, this behaviour is focussed on ‘preparation’ – getting ready to get the task started, which they are actually too scared to do for fear of failing.
Perfectionism is on the increase – especially in younger people. It does not discriminate on gender, wealth or culture; the proliferation of perfectionism is being fed by social media, societal expectations, greater competition in the job market, increased accountability and the notion of constantly having to find ‘the new me’.
As a character trait and driver, perfectionism can be incredibly intoxicating and potent. Achieve those goals – you’re on fire! Fall short of the mark you can feel like an abject failure. This is where perfectionism is a significant problem. Perfectionists wrongly assume that they have to be perfect. They usually expect others to be perfect too. They get upset, angry and disillusioned when both fail to meet their exacting standards.
In setting unrealistic goals, perfectionists are destined to feel the threat of failure from the start and the constant pressure that comes as a result does not prove to be enjoyable or fun. In addition, their myopic focus fixated on outcomes means that perfectionists are not naturally reflective, and that they can miss out on the wisdom acquired by revisiting failures.
Being a Perfectionist Doesn’t Have to Be Bad….
There is a keen difference between perfectionism and a wanting to excel. The inflexible constraints of wanting to be perfect are damaging and demoralising, whereas the will to try hard, do you best and excel is inspiring but also, most importantly, adaptable.
Some of the world’s most important advances arise from the pursuit of excellence but, crucially, when we take a deep look at those that achieve these feats, we see people who are adaptable, mentally agile and reflective.
As Thomas Edison quite rightly said:
“I have not failed. I have simply found 10,000 ways that did not work.”
Perfectionism should not be a constant state of being. It’s simply not realistic, practical, healthy or beneficial (either for your mental wellbeing or academic advancement).
You will be constantly disappointed in yourself and others and you will miss out on valuable lessons from which to learn.
We all need to engage with the ebb and the flow, the ups and the downs.
Perfectionism: The Good and The Bad
Psychologists agree that perfectionism is multidimensional in that it has both its advantages and disadvantages. For example, many perfectionists excel in the career space yet – they often pay a price in their personal lives, many spending hours away from their homes and families. Some struggle to respond positively to any kind of adversity.
Psychologists generally agree that there are two kinds of perfectionism:
Adaptive perfectionism is defined as being healthy and normal. People exhibiting this characteristic set themselves high standards but ones that are achievable. Critically, they can cope when they don’t achieve their goals.
Maladaptive perfectionism gets in the way of being happy and leads to a constant feeling of not being good enough. Maladaptive perfectionists like to be in control, they are usually highly self-critical and unable to cope with failure. Not surprisingly, maladaptive perfectionism is closely associated with depression and anxiety.
What Price Do You Pay for Being a Perfectionist?
There are many reasons to challenge the perfectionist within:
Perfectionism is bad for your health. There are clear associations with a range of other conditions including depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome. In addition, it can also impact on your physical wellbeing with clear and proven links to the physical symptoms of stress, sleep disorder and exhaustion.
Perfectionist are seldom in possession of self-confidence.Like a dripping tap, it dissolves your sense of self-worth and erodes your confidence.
Procrastination and perfectionism often go hand in hand for the reasons outlined above.
Perfectionists are often burnout and suffer from exhaustion, as their constant pursuit of perfection leaves them unable to draw distinctions between what is and is not important and they try to do it all.
Many perfectionists miss out on key life experiences, as they naturally shy away from situations where they may fail. They struggle with irreverence and having fun and have to see ‘a point’ in most things. They struggle to be truly happy, as they forever seek out their next big goal. They rarely stop and admire their accomplishments. Additionally, few things are ever good enough.
Being in a relationship with a perfectionist, either as a friend or a partner, can be an exhausting and testing experience. As a result, perfectionists often struggle to form meaningful relationships both at work and in their personal lives. Many people do not like to be measured, judged and compared and thus, steer away from people who impinge on their sense of self-worth.
Clearly, this is about striking a balance: challenging ourselves to do well and achieve our goals, but not at the expense of our health, wellbeing and relationships.
Does some of this sound familiar to you? Maybe we can begin to draw some conclusions about our own behaviour. Unsure if you are a perfectionist? Have a read of the next article here.