Updated: Jul 28, 2021
"Perfect is the enemy of good." -Voltaire
I’m a recovering perfectionist. I say “recovering” because until fairly recently I thought perfectionism served me well. I had great grades all through high school, college, and grad school. I generally got the jobs I wanted, good performance reviews, and regular promotions. By the most obvious markers, I was successful, but there was a darker side to that perfectionism that I’d largely ignored. I rarely got a good night’s sleep, lived on caffeine, didn’t eat right, managed stress in unhealthy ways, and pushed through several red flags of serious health problems. Perhaps even worse, no matter how many degrees or milestones I'd achieved, deep down, I still never truly felt “good enough.” It wasn’t until I was completely sidelined with autoimmune illnesses that I realized how harmful perfectionism can be. It’s a stealth saboteur that can sneak up on you in innocuous ways. As perfectionism can sabotage your happiness, goals, relationships, career, and even your health, it’s important to understand what perfectionism really is, recognize the signs when it’s getting out of control, and take action before it completely derails you.
Where does perfectionism come from? Contrary to what you might think, perfectionism isn’t really about being “perfect." It’s not driven as much by the desire to achieve something as it is to escape something-namely, undesirable feelings like inadequacy, anxiety, unworthiness, or loss of control. Often, these feelings originate from childhood wounds-anything from rigid cultural or parental expectations, sibling rivalry, school or social challenges, to more severe wounds like family addiction or abuse. As children, we quickly learn adaptive strategies to please others to survive and feel safe, loved, and accepted. Though we may learn more adaptive ways to cope as we grow, these strategies remain buried in our subconscious and can still be triggered by those uncomfortable feelings in adulthood.
The consequences of perfectionism can range from subtle, day-to-day difficulties with relationships or job performance, to more serious-stress-related illness, mental health issues, or addiction. It’s important to recognize that many of us have some degree of perfectionism. Like most traits, perfectionism is a continuum-where we fall on it depends on our personal history, triggers, and our self-awareness of them. Additionally, we may fluctuate over time depending on our stress level and our real or perceived ability to control our stressors.
The key to effective functioning is learning to recognize the feelings that tweak our inner “control freak,” resist reacting as that wounded child, and make conscious decisions to respond with more adaptive, purposeful actions that restore us to our adult feelings of control and efficacy. Below are 5 subtle ways perfectionism can show up and some thoughts and strategies to help keep it from sabotaging you.
1) Being overly critical of self and others: We all have those critical inner voices that periodically tell us we’re not good enough, but perfectionists have a gaggle of them. They avoid going for that job promotion, new relationship, or activity for fear of failure or ridicule, and often settle for less than what they’re capable of achieving. Perfectionists are mercilessly hard on themselves, ruminating about even the slightest mistakes. They often find it difficult to be spontaneous or have fun. Further, they can be as hard on other people as they are on themselves so they often come off as rigid and judgmental. They’re not team players as they feel inadequate relative to others or fear asking for help may be perceived as weakness. They don’t trust others can complete a task as well as they can. Sadly, because of these faulty perceptions, perfectionists may become even more isolated, increasing their own feelings of inadequacy.
Think about someone you know who fits this profile-maybe a coworker, someone from high school, or a movie character. Do/did you like this person? Do/did you want to be like them? Do/did you like to work together? Do/did they seem happy? Now think of someone you really like and want to emulate. Do they seem “perfect” or do they make mistakes? When they do make mistakes, can they laugh about them? Do they try new things? Ask for help? Reach out to help others? Do they seem happy and more connected? Heed the lesson. Surround yourself with this kind of people! If you’re afraid to go for that job promotion or try something new, ask for their advice or ask them to go with you. Remember, most people like being asked for their help or expertise and would rather be flawed together than perfect all by themselves.
2) Stress and anxiety: Perfectionists often have trouble relaxing, winding down from their day, or sleeping. They may rely on drugs, alcohol, or sedatives to relax and be at risk of developing mental health or substance abuse disorders. Sometimes, perfectionists simply overwork or overextend to the point of being too exhausted to enjoy their downtime. They may engage in unhealthy stress behaviors like overeating or develop stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes.
As multiple studies have shown stress and anxiety are among the most common reasons people visit their family physicians, it’s vital that those of us that suffer from perfectionism incorporate healthy stress management strategies into every day. Of course, there’s the disclaimer: don’t expect immediate success or push yourself to extremes, like taking up running during your lunch break if you’ve been completely sedentary for the last few years! Explore what interests you and start small-walking, desk yoga, meditation, mindfulness, massage; whatever helps you de-stress and get out of your own head for a while. Thankfully, wellness programs are becoming increasingly available in the workplace and online. Life, career, or wellness coaching can be especially effective to help you identify unrealistic limiting beliefs such as perfectionism, purposefully replace them with healthier, more reality-based beliefs, and develop healthier stress management strategies. However, if stress and anxiety have become unmanageable or you are experiencing symptoms of a serious medical disorder, mental health disorder, or suicidal thoughts, seek out a qualified medical/mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255.)
3) Procrastination: Procrastination is one of the sneakiest and most misunderstood manifestations of perfectionism. Rather than start a daunting project or break it down into more manageable pieces, the perfectionist will find a deluge of reasons to put it off rather than risk not writing that perfect speech or brilliant proposal. Procrastination is a particularly challenging one for me, (though on the upside my house is never cleaner than when I have to write a speech or article!) In fact, before I finally sat down to write this one, I just had to clean the last few years’ worth of dust bunnies off my ceiling fans! Other times, even if I know a topic well or already have all the information I need, if I’m not brilliantly inspired when I sit down to that blank computer screen, I can convince myself I just have to do more research until my deadline looms around the corner and I'm completely in the weeds.
So, the next time you tell yourself you have to delay an important task to watch that YouTube tutorial on origami, or find yourself surfing the web instead of updating your resumé, ask yourself, “Do I really need to do this now?” “Could I be avoiding something?" or “What am I feeling when I try to start this?” Sit with that feeling for a while. Ask yourself, is this reasonable, or is it my inner perfectionist rearing its ugly head? Try naming that feeling or inner perfectionist, or write it down in a journal, then put it away in a drawer and try again. Break down the project into smaller steps or longer time frame. Take breaks when you need to. A little start is better than none at all and will likely help you accomplish your task. Remember, you’re not carving a stone tablet-you can always tweak it later.
4) Perfection Paralysis: As the name implies, extreme perfectionism can cause us to become completely stuck in inaction. Perfectionist paralysis is very similar to all or nothing thinking. For example, thinking if you don't check every box perfectly for that promotion, you might as well not even apply, (when in reality no one ever meets all the qualifications for a new job,) or eating one donut, then justifying eating the rest of the box you've already "failed" your diet. Another manifestation may be extreme ambivalence or indecision-frequently being unable to make a decision for fear of making the wrong one or having the unrealistic expectation you’ll always know what the right one is.
“The maxim ‘nothing but perfection’ may be spelled p-a-r-a-l-y-s-i-s.” -Winston Churchill
Think about a big decision you may have made recently, like a major move or job change. Even if you did your homework, did you accurately predict everything about what it was like actually living in that new place or working that new job? No matter how well we plan, we can never exactly predict or control the future. What we can do is diligently research our options, prepare, make a decision, and then, if need be, course correct. Think of those opportunities you may have missed because you couldn’t make a decision. Any regrets? Have you ever discovered a great new restaurant or scenic drive when you took a wrong turn or loved a new dish that you’d always assumed you’d hate? Ever made a great new friend you discovered was completely different than you’d expected them to be? Now think about something you never thought in a million years you could achieve and how great it felt when you achieved it.
For me, I always remember singing Karaoke for the first time. I would never in a million years have thought of doing anything on stage let alone singing, but a coworker had volunteered, and let’s just say she wasn’t stellar. She seemed to enjoy herself though, we all did too, and when she got back to the table, she confided that she’d always been completely tone-deaf. I really admired her for that, so I took a deep breath, went up to the stage, and belted one out. I wasn’t stellar either, but amazingly, I wasn’t half bad and when I did it again, I was better. To this day whenever there’s something I really want to do but am afraid to try, I remember that coworker and how proud of myself I felt that day. What’s your success story?
5) Poor time management: With their attention to fine details, one might think perfectionists would be great time managers but in reality, they tend to be chronically late or may not show altogether. Because perfectionists have unrealistically high expectations of what they can accomplish in a given day, they often overschedule and get overwhelmed. Additionally, perfectionists can be “people pleasers.” They have great difficulty saying no when others ask for help even when they really don’t have the time. Perfectionists may have difficulty meeting deadlines because they spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing on the unimportant details of a project while more important issues get rushed. I remember taking over a month editing and reediting the minutia of my website (that no one would likely even notice) instead of just getting the site up and running. I later realized it was a delay tactic due to feeling insecure about launching my new business.
If you often find yourself feeling overwhelmed, late, or missing deadlines, some questions to ask are, “What am I afraid will happen if I say no?” “What am I trying to avoid by overscheduling myself?” or “What am I really accomplishing if I’m always so late or stressed out I can’t enjoy that dinner, movie, workshop, etc.?” Though it may be hard at first, IT REALLY IS OK TO SAY NO. In fact, studies have shown again and again that multitasking and overscheduling decrease, not increase, job productivity, performance, and satisfaction. It may take practice, but in the end, the less overwhelmed you are, the more clear-headed, present, and productive you’ll be at home or at work.
These are just a few of the ways perfectionism can subtly sabotage your goals and steal your joy. It may manifest differently for you or to a greater or lesser degree. If you’re struggling with it, it’s important to remember that perfectionism is a habit that’s been cultivated over a long period of time and that recovery from anything, especially perfectionism, isn’t a “perfect” art. Where we are on a given day in a given situation depends on where we are with the undesirable feelings we want to avoid. The key is to bring those feelings into conscious awareness and deal with them more purposefully. For example, I’ve learned that my inner control freak comes out the most when I’m feeling the most out of control and stressed at work, so that’s the time I really need to take a break to regroup.
Finally, be kind to yourself. Ongoing recovery from perfectionism requires cultivating a mindset that prioritizes GROWTH over perfection. Practice and experiment. Seek out a tribe of like-minded people with whom you can be yourself, share your struggles, and laugh about them. Be sure to include those people you admire and can learn from. Join a “bucket list” meet-up group or simply commit to trying something new once a month. It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering. For example, if you’re afraid of public speaking, visit a Toastmasters meeting. Take a painting class. Learn to play. Hire a qualified coach or counselor. The bottom line is that life’s too short to let perfectionism limit your possibilities!
"Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best...It's a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from flight." -Brené Brown