“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” – Anne Wilson Schaef
“Perfectionist”. We’ve all heard the word.
But what does being a perfectionist mean?
If we look at perfectionism from a psychological perspective, it would be defined as a personality trait that encompasses:
- aspirations for flawlessness (unattainable ideals),
- excessively critical evaluations of self and others, and
- excessively high standards for performance
(just to name a few main points).
But when we consider that personality traits are considered to be consistent over time (because of the attribution to genetic factors rather than environmental ones), how dangerous can perfectionism be if it spirals out of control and begins to engulf our entire lives?
“Reaching for the stars, perfectionists may end up clutching at air” – Dr. David Burns
Perfectionism can be helpful as well as maladaptive.
Eating disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and many other mental disorders have been linked to perfectionism.
Constant high (and unrealistic) expectations paves the way for failure, and when this happens, deep feelings of inadequacy and feelings of “it’s never enough” begin to kick in.
Because one cannot live up to his or her standards, shame, self-doubt, disappointment, and fear of failure can be felt at extreme levels; mixed with negative feelings of self, surroundings, and future, this also puts the individual at high risk for become depressed.
Additionally, the constant strain and stressors of meeting expectations can can lead to physical complications, such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure/sugar levels.
Dr. Steven Seay, director of the Center of Psychological & Behavioral Science in Florida, says that possible signs of maladpative perfectionism are:
You check and recheck your work repeatedly for typos, misspellings, and errors. You worry about what might happen if you accidentally overlook a mistake.
You avoid checking for mistakes at all, because if you found one, it might cause you to check repeatedly. Or you might avoid checking entirely because it’s “too stressful” or “too exhausting” and you don’t feel like dealing with it.
Despite multiple revisions, your writing never feels like it “sounds right.” You spend more time thinking or searching for the “perfect word” than you do writing.
You feel like you shouldn’t get started with a project unless you have enough time to finish it in one sitting. This might apply to writing papers, composing emails, or doing homework.
You spend more time preparing for projects (organizing yourself, gathering resources, doing background research) than you do working on projects.
You spend so much time searching for the perfect topic that you never get started on the project itself.
You habitually miss deadlines because you underestimate the amount of time and effort needed to complete projects.
You are extremely critical of others and yourself.
In short, when perfectionism becomes maladaptive, individuals feel constantly pressured to meet their own expectations.
When these standards are not met, cognitive dissonance occurs. (Confused? Cognitive dissonance will be covered in detail in the next article!)
So set realistic goals for your own self, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t complete every task you planned.
Perfection is an unrealistic expectation– so just work on doing your best, rather than trying to be the best (at everything).
You can also listen to my podcast in three parts here:
Mallinger, A.; DeWyze, J. (1992). Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control. New York: Fawcett Columbine
Seay, S. J. (2011). Perfectionism in OCD: When the pursuit of success turns toxic. http://www.steveseay.com/perfectionism-ocd-symptoms-perfectionist/