What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait characterised by an unrelenting pursuit of perfection. Perfectionists feel an overwhelming internal pressure to set and meet unrealistically high standards. People with perfectionistic tendencies tend to be very self-critical. They are constantly striving for perfection in various aspects of their lives, including work, relationships, and personal achievements. They often have a deep fear of failure, which fuels their drive to succeed. In this article, we will explore what perfectionism entails and its main impacts. We’ll also look at why seeking support from an experienced psychologist is crucial for learning to manage perfectionism.
What Causes Perfectionism?
The perfectionist mindset is a fascinating yet complex trait that many individuals develop in childhood. Perfectionist thinking can stem from various causes, including family or societal pressures to meet unrealistic standards, unrelenting criticism from caregivers, and the fear of judgment and rejection. Additionally, personal traits such as high conscientiousness and a desire for control can contribute to the development of perfectionistic tendencies.
ADAPTATION & Survival
Perfectionism is a survival strategy developed in childhood to cope with challenges faced in your upbringing. Challenges such as overly critical or abusive environments, personal trauma including abandonment, and family conflict or breakdown. The focus on perfection gives the child something to strive for; a way to prove their worth and value through setting exceptionally high standards and expecting flawless outcomes; a way to feel in control of the uncertainty that surrounds them; or a method to gain approval and love or avoid judgment and criticism.
Like all our childhood survival strategies, they make perfect sense in the context in which you developed them. But as a mature adult you start to experience the limitations and toxic nature of your adaptive survival mechanisms. Perfectionism is problematic because, of course, perfection cannot be realised, no-one and nothing is perfect. And because perfectionists link their self-worth to the attainment of perfection, they never feel worthy and constantly struggle with feelings that they are not good enough.
Contradictory Nature of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is a contradiction. Striving for perfection can be both motivating and debilitating; the fear of failure can lead some to give up before they have even started, or to obsess so much with the details that they never get off first-base. At other times, the drive for perfection can motivate and energise you to do better, achieving incredible results. Although this pressure to perform can have a profoundly negative impact on our mental well-being and overall quality of life and stop perfectionists from celebrating their successes.
From the outside, perfectionists often appear to have it all together, to be in control, managing it all, doing very well. But this is nothing more than a well-crafted mask. Internally, there is usually massive self-doubt, constant self-criticism, and perpetual fear of not being good enough. Perfectionists often feel like imposters or frauds and struggle with self-doubt. Additionally, focusing on mistakes and not successes can increase stress, cause excessive rumination, lack of self-worth and even suicidal thoughts.
Characteristics of the Perfectionist Mindset
Perfectionists often engage in black-and-white thinking. This is where they believe they are either perfect or a complete failure, with no middle-ground. This of course is damaging to self-esteem, to relationships, to career and study and to almost all areas of life.
Fear of Failure:
Perfectionists have an intense fear of making mistakes or falling short of their own unrealistic expectations. This fear can be debilitating, causing the person to freeze and lose motivation. Alternatively, it can lead to so much stress and anxiety, that mistakes are more likely to happen, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Perfectionists tend to be overly self-critical, judging themselves harshly for perceived imperfections or mistakes. This often means that wins and successes are overlooked, and mistakes are highlighted. This is the person who gets 99% on their exam, focuses on the 1%, and feels a complete failure.
Perfectionists seek validation and approval from others, basing their self-worth on external feedback. This can lead to people-pleasing behaviours and losing your sense of self.
Due to the fear of not meeting their own high standards, perfectionists may procrastinate or avoid tasks altogether, leading to more feelings of failure and damaging their self-esteem further.
The Impacts of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can lead to significant psychological distress. The relentless pressure to achieve perfection can contribute to anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. And this constant fear of making mistakes or falling short of impossibly high standards can create a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and self-criticism.
Procrastination and Paralysis:
Paradoxically, perfectionism can also lead to procrastination and paralysis. The fear of not being able to meet one’s own unrealistic expectations can be so overwhelming that individuals may find themselves avoiding tasks or projects altogether. And this can hinder personal and professional growth and prevent individuals from reaching their full potential.
Perfectionism can strain relationships. The intense focus on flawless performance and the need for external validation can create distance between perfectionists and their loved ones. Their excessive self-criticism may lead to feelings of inadequacy and an inability to accept praise or constructive feedback.
Recognising the detrimental effects of perfectionism and seeking support from a registered psychologist can be transformative. Psychologists are trained professionals who specialise in understanding human behaviour and can provide valuable guidance to individuals struggling with perfectionistic tendencies. Here’s how a psychologist can help:
- Developing Healthy Coping Strategies: Psychologists can assist in developing healthy coping strategies to manage perfectionistic tendencies. They can help individuals challenge their unrealistic expectations, cultivate self-compassion, and adopt a more balanced and realistic approach to achievement.
- Addressing Underlying Issues: Perfectionism often stems from deep-rooted emotional or psychological factors. Psychologists can help uncover and address these underlying issues, such as low self-esteem, fear of failure, or the need for external validation. By working through these concerns, individuals can find healthier ways to pursue their goals.
- Building Resilience and Self-Acceptance: Psychologists can guide individuals towards building resilience and self-acceptance. They can help individuals recognise their inherent worth beyond their achievements and assist in cultivating a positive and nurturing mindset. This shift in perspective can reduce the impact of perfectionism on mental well-being and enhance overall life satisfaction.
In conclusion, while striving for excellence is admirable, the pursuit of perfection can be a double-edged sword. The impacts of perfectionism on mental health and personal fulfillment are significant. Whilst many perfectionists will claim that the trait “makes them a better person” there is often a dark truth that they have not fully faced. Speaking personally, I am a recovering perfectionist and I understand what it is like to live with constant self-criticism, unrealistically high expectations, fear of failure and depression.
Seeking help from a registered psychologist with experience treating perfectionism can provide the necessary tools and support to navigate the challenges associated with perfectionism. By embracing a more balanced and compassionate approach, individuals can find joy in their achievements and foster healthier relationships with themselves and others. Remember, perfection is an illusion, but personal growth and self-acceptance are lifelong journeys worth pursuing.
If you have any questions, please feel free to email me or arrange an appointment.
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