Who doesn’t want to be perfect? Most of us spend a lot of our lives chasing perfection in all its forms. Academically, professionally, interpersonally – for many of us, perfectionism is the backdrop to everything we do.
My own journey with perfectionism has been difficult: when I was really young, any instance of failure would send me into a meltdown. I would scream, throw things, and cry – I would throw tantrums, mainly motivated by my fear of being imperfect. Somewhere along the line, I taught myself that anything less than perfection is unworthy; I assumed that if I failed, I would lose the things that I love, the things that I want. I ignored the hundreds of steps between failure and perfection – to me, those steps didn’t exist. Either I achieved my goals to perfection, or I failed in every way. In my eyes, if I wasn’t perfect, then I was worth nothing at all.
As an adult, I’ve developed a sense of logic surrounding perfectionism – I know that, logically, failure is a step towards success. I know that perfection is unattainable, and that pursuing perfection in everything is damaging to my health. I know that this kind of black-and-white thinking is evidence of a cognitive distortion: but somewhere deep inside of me, I still believe that little voice that tells me I’m worth nothing if I’m not perfect. My commitment to perfection is a negative core belief: one that the world reinforces.
I set out on a journey this year to unravel my perfectionist tendencies. I wanted to understand where it started, and where it ends. For me, it all began with understanding what was happening to me, and why.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is often described as a combination of two components: excessively high personal standards and overly critical self evaluations. However, perfectionism in practice is a lot more complicated than that.
There are different types of perfectionism – the two overarching categories are adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive forms of perfectionism are defined by scholars as healthy and normal: this kind of perfectionism usually involves constructive effort and goal setting. Everyone to some degree experiences adaptive perfectionism; we all strive to be our best selves, and we work to achieve the goals that we set for ourselves. Maladaptive perfectionism is defined as a form of perfectionism that negatively impacts a person’s mental, behavioral, and physical health. Those that live with maladaptive perfectionism often overthink, overcriticize, and overwhelm themselves with expectation. Healthy, adaptive forms of perfectionism can be beneficial! It’s not a bad thing to push yourself to be better; however, perfectionism can be a slippery slope.
The 5 Styles of Maladaptive Perfectionism
Ultimately, perfectionism stems from multiple sources: some of us have an innate fear of judgment and disapproval. Some of us had parents that passed their high expectations onto us. And some of us even have behavioral health conditions that contribute to obsessive perfectionism.
Whatever the cause, it is helpful to know that perfectionism doesn’t happen in a vacuum – rather, it forms from and is shaped by our surroundings. If you are living with unrealistically high expectations, know that you are not alone. Perfectionism is one of the most common symptoms of behavioral health conditions.
- Self-oriented perfectionism: expecting yourself to be perfect
- Other-oriented perfectionism: expecting others to be perfect
- Socially prescribed perfectionism: feeling that the world expects you to be perfect
- Overt perfectionism: high achieving, control-oriented
- Covert perfectionism: under-achieving, control-averse
No matter what your “style” is, maladaptive perfectionism can be debilitating. Exceedingly high expectations, fear of failure, and intense personal or interpersonal criticism are all components of a perfectionist.
The Consequences of Perfectionism
An early study in suicide prevention found that over half of people who died by suicide were described by their loved ones as “perfectionists.” Some studies suggest that 70% of young people that die by suicide have “exceedingly high” expectations of themselves.
Maladaptive, self-oriented perfectionism has been linked to the development of bipolar disorder, clinical depression, eating disorders, substance use conditions, and physical health conditions like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and chronic stress.
Speaking for myself, perfectionism has controlled my life for a long time. It’s most often accompanied by a paralyzing fear: fear of failure, fear of judgment, and fear of letting others down. It has impacted my performance in school and professional settings, and has even impacted my relationships. And while the consequences of obsessive perfectionism are extreme, that doesn’t mean that you can’t unlearn your tendencies.
How to Combat Perfectionism
The most well-researched cure for depression related to perfectionism is self-compassion. One landmark study suggests that self-compassion dramatically moderates the relationship between perfectionism and depression. Higher rates of self-compassion have been linked to faster and more sustained recovery times – self-compassion promotes healing from trauma, depression, substance use, and other behavioral health conditions.
Being kind to yourself is transformational. Improving our relationship with ourselves, decreasing negative self-talk, and introducing self-care routines can help us heal from toxic perfectionism. This may seem like a simple solution, but self-compassion can be difficult and complicated for those with deeply internalized perfectionism.
Certain forms of therapy have proven to be helpful in alleviating toxic and maladaptive perfectionism. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) deals mainly in the cognitive realm: how we process our thoughts, how our internalized beliefs influence our behaviors, and how restructuring our cognitive processes can help minimize distress. Other forms of therapy like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and various forms of psychotherapy have been proven to help those with perfectionist tendencies restructure their beliefs and thought processes, leading to healthier outcomes.
Understanding how our core beliefs impact our routines can help us identify perfectionist tendencies before they go too far. Having a coordinated care plan that includes therapy gives us a dedicated space to address our perfectionism; one of the best ways to combat maladaptive perfectionism is to spend time unraveling it.
Acknowledge external influence
External structures often reinforce perfectionist thinking; living under a capitalist system encourages us to value productivity above wellness, which can lead to maladaptive behaviors. Sometimes it is our own families that reinforce perfectionism – we feel pressured to live up to their expectations of us. For those with intersectional identities, the pressure to be perfect might be overwhelming; we feel like we have to overcompensate for the parts of ourselves that the world rejects.
Whatever the external pressures might be, it is helpful to acknowledge the role that they play in perfectionism. Our perfectionist behavior is often learned. Identifying these sources of external pressure can help us understand why we experience perfectionism and point us towards healthier alternatives.
Befriend the inner critic
That voice inside of us that criticizes is actually just motivated by fear. If we can learn to see that aspect of ourselves empathetically, we can begin to understand why it criticizes in the first place. I call this process “befriending the inner critic.” Oftentimes, we berate ourselves for not being able to resist that inner critic; other times, we berate ourselves because we didn’t listen to that inner critic. Changing our relationship with that voice can dramatically alter the way we engage with ourselves. Instead of listening to or hating the inner critic, what if we approached it with an honest, gentle curiosity?
That inner critic is still a part of yourself; it may be a part of you that stores trauma, and it may be that this part of you is still hurting from past failure. Have empathy for this part of yourself. Befriend the inner critic. With empathy and compassion, we can begin to understand the origins of our perfectionism.
One of the consequences of being a perfectionist is that we rarely live in the moment. We are constantly on alert, constantly worried about the future. Instead of resting in the present moment, perfectionists exist in a constant state of low-grade anxiety. Mindfulness practice, both secular and non-secular, has been proven to help perfectionists soothe their anxiety about the future. Practicing mindfulness helps us stay connected to our bodies; it helps us understand where we are feeling fear and where we are feeling tension.
Mindfulness has been proven to alleviate stress, anxiety, and other symptoms of behavioral health conditions. For me personally, mindfulness has made the biggest difference: just being able to put some space between my fear and the present moment has helped me switch perspectives. I still deal with perfectionist tendencies, but now I have coping skills through mindfulness – I no longer have to spiral out of control because of my perfectionism.
Living with Perfectionism
It’s not a matter of eliminating perfectionism; as a perfectionist, I am well aware of the ways in which I strive to be perfect in my recovery. Rather, it’s a matter of learning to live a healthy life with perfectionism. And it starts with the recognition that you do not have to be perfect. No one expects perfection, not really. It is possible to free yourself from your own expectations. To be imperfect is to be human. Imperfection is beautiful and vulnerable, and it lets us see failure as a stepping stone to success.
My heartbeat still quickens when I make a mistake; I still spend much of my time agonizing over details. But I am learning how to live with imperfection, and I am much, much happier for it. Embrace your imperfections – you do not deserve the pressure that you put on yourself. You are worthy of love and attention, no matter what you do. You deserve the space to make mistakes. It is okay to fail. It is okay to be imperfect. You are worthy anyway.