Post by Endi Guza, Psychologist at Deep Breath
What does it mean to be a perfectionist?
The notion of being a perfectionist is often associated with ambitious, hard-working, detail-oriented individuals. Sounds like a positive trait, right? In reality, it is not.
Perfectionism refers to the personality trait of always aiming for flawlessness, setting unrealistically high standards, and being overly critical of one’s self and the others. This comes with a constant fear of imperfection and failure, and excessive sensitivity to criticism. In most cases, being a perfectionist may be more harmful and draining to our mental health rather than beneficial.
Adaptive VS maladaptive perfectionism
There are two ways in which perfectionism manifests itself, adaptive and maladaptive.
Adaptive perfectionism is characterized by perfectionistic strivings, or the need to achieve high results and improve ourselves constantly. This includes tolerating mistakes and avoiding harsh self-criticism. To a certain extent, this type of perfectionism is healthy and may even drive us to accomplish our goals.
Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, is characterized by perfectionistic concerns, which consist of unrealistic standards, fear of failure, and high self-criticism. The performance of a maladaptive perfectionist, no matter how great, will never match their personal standards. This causes a vicious cycle of anxiety and procrastination.
If we could only cherry-pick the traits of adaptive perfectionism, we would likely work harder towards our aspirations and maybe be more satisfied with our work. However, in most cases, perfectionism comes as a mix of both aspects, and as such it may pose a threat to our self-esteem and mental well-being.
A perfectionist will typically engage in dysfunctional, self-defeating thought patterns. We can all admit to having adopted one (or more) of these patterns at least once. However, perfectionists tend to engage in these thinking styles most of the time
- Black & white thinking: only thinking in extremes - no middle ground. “If I do not get a straight A, I am basically a failure”.
- Self-blame: assuming responsibility for no good reason. “My manager asked for a 1:1 meeting. I must have messed up something”.
- Shoulding & musting: forcing unnecessary requirements on self and others “I must be the first to finish the exam, otherwise what’s the point?”.
- Catastrophizing: exaggerating the consequences. “I paid my phone bill late last month. My credit will go down and I will never be able to buy a house anymore”.
- Disqualifying the positive: assuming that positive aspects don’t count as much as negative ones. “My boss said my project was fine, but he says that to everyone. It probably wasn’t even good enough”.
- Jumping to conclusions: assuming that we can predict others’ reactions and thoughts. “I delivered my project 1 hour late. I am sure my manager is angry and I will probably get fired”.
Why is perfectionism harmful?
We must admit that many of us try to achieve perfection in some way. We aim for the perfect cover letter to get that job, the perfect outfit to impress on a first date, the perfect playlist for the workout routine. If we are able to accept that perfection is unlikely to be achieved and mistakes are unavoidable, no harm is done.
However, the roots of perfectionism often lie in anxiety and self-esteem related issues. A perfectionist may work very hard and strain themselves trying to achieve the perfect result. Yet, once they achieve success, they do not feel the satisfaction they were expecting, because they will never be able to reach the unrealistic standards they had set. As a result, the perfectionist will blame themselves for never being good enough and take the smallest mistake as a sign of personal incapability. The excessive fear of failure will often lead the perfectionist to procrastinate endlessly, trying to find the perfect moment to start. In other cases, it may lead them to overwork and burnout. Because the perfectionist equates their performance to self-worth, they are likely to suffer from low self-esteem and self-compassion.
Being trapped in this vicious cycle of fear, anxiety, and self-defeating thoughts may be mentally exhausting, but there is a way to get out of it. The first step is to be willing to change and accept help. Did you by now identify with some of the common traits of perfectionism? If you have any doubts, you can test your type and levels of perfectionism for free, and get detailed, personalized results.
Our integrated therapy-like approach developed by psychologists will help you identify whether your perfectionism is adaptive or maladaptive, and offer a personalized solution to not only balance your levels of perfectionism, but also work on your self-esteem, self-compassion, and enhance your emotional intelligence. Another way to go about it, is to check out our group sessions.
The medical information in this article is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult your doctor for guidance about a specific medical condition.