Being described as a perfectionist is actually a compliment, right? I remember being advised to respond with “I’m a perfectionist” when being asked about weaknesses in interviews. The idea, of course, is that it’s not really a weakness. Having high standards means that we do the best we can and approach life with motivation and ambition. Right?
It seems there is more to it than that.
Being a perfectionist has even been highlighted in several studies as a personality trait that puts you at risk of suicide. In 2017, a meta-analysis found that people who are prone to suicide put pressure on themselves – and feel pressure from others – to be perfect.
Below we’ll take a look at the 14 perfectionist signs to look out for and I wonder if you will recognise yourself in any of them?
And if you are a perfectionist, far from it being a good thing, it could even be affecting your life in more ways than you think.
Melissa Dahl of New York Magazine writes, “Perfectionism is more than pushing yourself to do your best to achieve a goal; it’s a reflection of an inner self mired in anxiety.”
A perfectionist often has unrelentingly high standards. They are never satisfied with a job done well, instead they looking for what went wrong. Perfectionists hardly ever stop to enjoy what they have achieved.
Perfectionism is very strongly linked to anxiety disorders, specifically Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
“The average person has very little understanding of how destructive perfectionism can be,” says Dr. Gordon Flett, a psychologist at York University.
I’ve always been a perfectionist and to be completely honest, rather proud of it. I like having high standards and doing well. I think it’s important to be the best you can be, to dress well, work hard and have a clean house.
It does mean that my life is crazy busy all the time. I’m doing a hundred different things at once, all the time. I feel overwhelmed but at the same time compelled to keep going.
While perfectionists may appear to have everything under control on the surface, underneath this thin veneer of perfection lies deep turmoil that both drives and comes from the pursuit of perfection.
I have to admit to feeling constantly frustrated with myself for not getting things done right, or fast enough. I always feel like I’m not quite good enough. A major focus of my anxiety is time: I have so much to do and little time to do it in.
I often ask myself why I continue to push myself the way I do, I’m clearly exhausted. But instead of slowing down, I speed up and take on more. Young and Klosko in their book Reinventing Your Life, sum it up “It is as if you believe that one of the things you do is finally going to bring you satisfaction. You do not realise that the way you approach everything makes genuine pleasure impossible. Inevitably, whatever you try to accomplish takes on that same cast, that same heavy feeling of pressure.”
In June this year I pushed myself so hard I came down with shingles.
For perfectionists, life is having to work or achieve all the time. You are often at your limits. There is no time to stop, take a break and enjoy your achievements.
So perhaps being a perfectionist isn’t such a good thing after all.
Are you a perfectionist too?
Here are 14 signs you could be:
- You have unrealistically high standards and beat yourself up when you don’t meet them: you are not satisfied with doing a great job. If it’s not perfect, it’s a failure.
- Your health is suffering because of daily stresses such as overwork.
- There’s no balance between work and play. You feel under constant pressure and the fun is gone.
- You are overly critical: of yourself and others around you. You will hone in on the imperfections in a piece of work or a situation and fixate on that rather than on what went right.
- You fear failure and that fear drives you.
- You rarely stop and enjoy achievements or successes. You just go on the next thing.
- Your relationships with other people are suffering because you spend much of your time trying to get things perfect rather than enjoying their company.
- Much of your life goes towards keeping your life in order: you spend much of your time making lists, organising, planning, cleaning, repairing and little time being creative or letting go.
- You can’t enjoy the journey: you’re so focused on the goal that the process of growing and striving isn’t enjoyable. You may find view many activities as ordeals to get through instead of enjoying them.
- You have low self-esteem. Perfectionists often have low self-esteem because they are so self-critical. They can also be lonely or isolated their rigidity pushes others away.
- You procrastinate. Because you have such high standards and you fear failure, you can become immobilised and feel overwhelmed, avoiding tasks.
- You find it hard to take criticism and are defensive when given constructive feedback.
- You feel overwhelmed by the amount you have to do and there never seems to be enough time.
- You often find yourself irritated or frustrated by things or people who can’t get things right.
It’s interesting that the term “perfectionist” is from the point of view of the outside observer. Perfectionists themselves rarely view themselves as perfect, or even good enough. To us perfectionists, it’s just a normal level of trying to achieve. We’re usually pretty good at whatever it is we do, but that is from other people’s point of view. Other people think we have achieved a lot, but we take our achievements for granted.
Being a perfectionist means that we are rarely content. The perfectionist’s approach to life means that we can find it hard to enjoy feelings such as love, peace, joy, pride, satisfaction, relaxation. Instead, we feel disappointed, angry, frustrated, irritated and under pressure.
The pressure we put ourselves under often manifests in physical ailments such as high blood pressure, ulcers, insomnia, colitis, fatigue, panic attacks, anxiety, chronic back pain, IBS, obesity, arthritis and skin problems.
Often, this inner turmoil can be difficult for others to see or even for us to acknowledge, as we often work hard to maintain an image of accomplishment and well-being. As a result, if we are struggling with psychological distress we may be less likely to receive the help we need, causing even deeper levels of emotional pain.
I realised recently that being a perfectionist means that I often don’t fully enjoy the time I have with my children because I am busy preparing the “perfect” meal or tidying the house so that it looks “perfect”. This causes them unhappiness and robs us all of our fun time together. Even worse, these behaviours can also be passed onto our children, through learnt behaviour (as if I wasn’t already beating myself up enough…).
So what are some steps we can take to help scale some of that perfectionism back?
It’s hard to change, but here are some ways you can start:
- Set realistic goals and expectations.
The key here is the word “realistic”. There’s nothing wrong with having high standards, but you should be feeling motivated by your goal, rather than weighed down by it. By setting more realistic goals, you will be able to enjoy them, feel a sense of excitement and achieve a more balanced lifestyle.
- Celebrate your successes.
Congratulate yourself when you do well and give credit where credit is due.
- Ask yourself what 70-80% done would look like.
Your 70% done is likely to be someone else’s perfect. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.
- Prioritise self-care and self-love.
Recognise that rest, recovery and relaxation are essential parts of the progress towards a successful and ultimately happy life.
- Recognise negative thought patterns.
Notice when self-critical negative thoughts come into your mind and ask yourself whether they are warranted. Would you speak to a friend the way you are speaking to yourself? No? Then shut it down.
- Give everyone around you a break.
When you have such high standards, it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting others to perform at that same level. Accept that the rest of the world isn’t wired like you. The sooner you can adjust your expectations, the better your relationships will be with the people around you.
- Bring yourself into the moment.
By doing this you will start to be able to enjoy the journey and let go. A great way to start is meditation.
Sam Taylor is a wellness specialist and public speaker who works with women to help them live lives free from stress and anxiety.
After founding Mind Body Beyond, a successful health and wellness studio in Melbourne, Samantha truly understands how mind and body need to work together to overcome anxiety and believes with a passion that we all deserve to feel strong, whole and in charge of our lives.
Samantha founded thenurtureproject.com in 2018, a 12-week online program helping women to develop the life skills of exercise, nutrition, meditation, self-care and sleep so they can beat anxiety for good.