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February 8, 2023

Is Perfectionism Holding You Back?

Post By:
Morgan Levy, Ph.D.
In-House Contributor
Licensed Psychologist
Morgan Levy, Ph.D., PLLC
Guest Contributor:

Are you a high-achieving perfectionist?

We often think of this as a useful trait. Perfectionists typically have a strong attention to detail, which can result in high-quality work. They tend to have higher levels of dedication to their work, and they are viewed by others as consistent and reliable. They may also have a strong sense of motivation, which keeps them moving forward and meeting goals. 

On one hand, perfectionism might serve you well, helping you achieve your goals and maintain your success. But on the other hand, if left unchecked, it could have a harmful effect on your personal and professional life.

It could create inauthenticity in relationships due to fear of displaying your imperfections. It can lead to increased depression and anxiety. And perhaps worst of all (in the eyes of the perfectionist), it can have a drastic negative impact on your productivity and focus, leading to burnout. Over time, it could begin to feel like your expectations for yourself (and for others) grow larger and larger to the point of being impossible to meet. 

Perfectionism is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it got you to where you are today. But it’s essential to learn how to refine it to prevent perfectionism from holding you back.

Is pervasive perfectionism have its grip on you? These 3 signs indicate that your perfectionist tendencies are doing more harm than good:

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1. You evaluate your self-worth based on expectations. These expectations can come from yourself or others, but they are usually impossible to meet. The problem with unattainable expectations is that you rarely experience a sense of satisfaction and are unable to celebrate any of your success. Instead, you just always look ahead to what’s next. This could lead to a chronic sense of burnout and unhappiness.

2. You feel a strong need for control. This shows up at work with colleagues and team members, as well as at home with family, friends, and loved ones. Perfectionism can destroy relationships. Usually, this sense of control is rooted in the fear of making a mistake and being exposed as an imposter.

3. You always feel like you’re putting on a performance. A perfectionist is usually afraid of being “found out” as a fraud. You might feel like you don’t know how you got to where you are and that you might only have gotten this far due to “luck.” This leads to the feeling of constantly putting on a performance and wearing a mask so people don’t see who you really are. There is a deep-rooted fear of being rejected for displaying imperfections.

Who, Me? A Perfectionist?

Most of the time, perfectionists don’t actually believe that they are perfectionists. You might think of a “perfectionist” as someone who has it all together-- someone who is organized, tidy, never makes a mistake, and always excels. However, perfectionism doesn’t always show up like that.

Perfectionism shows up as a harsh inner critic telling you that if you make a mistake, you're a failure. This can look like procrastination at work, because it’s easier to avoid a task than to try it and not get it just right. It can show up as a lack of satisfaction, being unable to celebrate success as it happens, because you’re always looking ahead to the next milestone.

In general, perfectionism is a broad personality trait that exists on a spectrum. Some people can be driven to the brink of despair by perfectionism. If left unchecked, perfectionism can impact relationships, work achievement, and psychological well-being. When you’re able to fine-tune it, it becomes easier to be driven by the excitement of success and view mistakes as growth opportunities.

How Does Perfectionism Develop?

Perfectionism typically starts showing up early in childhood. This is usually because of the messages we receive from the important people in our lives. (Let me be clear: there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. Many parents and caregivers don’t even realize they are instilling perfectionism in their child.)

It’s common for adult high-achievers to have been the child that was well-behaved, got good grades, and always received compliments from teachers or other authority figures. As wonderful as that feels, when this keeps happening, a child is likely to internalize an association between the praise and their worth.

This means that they learn and believe that their worth is measured by their ability to achieve…. a belief which then carries over into adulthood.

And so a full-blown perfectionist is born-- someone who continuously feels the pressure to perform in order to be considered worthy of acceptance.

Perfectionism often stems from a deep-rooted drive to be accepted and loved. Perfection is viewed as a means to earn love and acceptance from others. However, this approach is not sustainable, and it can lead to feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem. By recognizing the root of our perfectionism, we can approach it in a healthier way.

Can Harmful Perfectionism Become Healthy?

Perfectionists often have a profound fear of failure, which can lead to procrastination and a lack of motivation. This fear of failure can be a major roadblock in reaching our goals and achieving success. However, by shifting our focus from the fear of failure to the excitement of success, we can use perfectionism to our advantage. Failure is a natural part of growth. 

Another way that we can use perfectionism to our advantage is by really understanding where we can focus on being good enough and not perfect. It’s really easy to get stuck in the details and be overly critical of our work. We might spend hours writing an email only to get back a two-word response a few minutes later. There are likely areas in our life where we can loosen up a bit and still meet our goals-- without requiring perfection. 

We want to strive for excellence, but not at the expense of our mental health and well-being. 

For example, let's say you're working on a project that allows you to access your more creative side. Instead of striving for perfection in every aspect of the project, you can focus on making one or two elements “perfect” (or at least have higher expectations– because “perfect” doesn’t truly exist), while allowing the other parts to be “good enough.” This way, you can still achieve a high level of excellence, but not to the point where it becomes overwhelming and prevents you from moving forward.

When you start to understand where your perfectionism might come from, it's easier to discover the areas of your life where you can fine-tune it. Maybe it makes sense to have high expectations at work, but maybe it doesn't make sense to have high expectations for getting chores done every single day.

Without developing this foundation and understanding, it’s easy to stay stuck in an endless cycle of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, and it becomes almost impossible to develop authentic relationships with others and with yourself.

The first step to overcoming the impacts of perfectionism is just recognizing how it shows up in your life. From there, it becomes easier to move towards celebrating success, maintaining achievable expectations, and cultivating authentic relationships. 

If you’re ready to explore this deeper and learn how to make your perfectionism work for you, join me at my upcoming workshop, Fine-Tune Your Perfectionism! We’ll be diving deep into the root causes and exploring actionable steps you can start putting into practice that very day. I hope to see you there!