Today I am starting a 2 part series to discuss a topic that has come up at some point with almost every client I’ve ever worked with – perfectionism.

Perfectionism: what it is and how it's interfering with your success

Perfectionism comes with an enormous amount of stress. While it may seem on the surface like it’s a desire for success, it is really just focused on avoiding failure.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a perfectionist per se, you might find that the desire for something to be perfect is in fact what is stopping you from starting a project that you so desperately want to complete.

Due to the desire to avoid failure, perfectionism comes with a side of procrastination that damages future prospects. After all, if you don’t start a project, then you can’t fail at it. But this intersection of perfectionism and avoidance leads to hopelessness and distress. You are constantly at war with yourself over the things you want to accomplish and your desire for them to be perfect.

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But what happens if a perfectionist is able to overcome the stress and pull off the “perfect” project? Shouldn’t it be possible with enough work and time?

Since perfection is impossible, the perfectionist will find fault with something. And then have even greater expectations for the next time. A perfectionist might even dwell on the fact that the project seemed so hard or took so long to complete – and therefore that means they are not perfect. Much like negative self talk, perfectionism knows no boundaries.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is often mistaken as a positive trait and that the perfectionist simply has lofty goals. Nothing wrong with that, right? But these two things are not the same.

You can have the loftiest goals in the world, but that doesn’t make you a perfectionist.

In fact, someone with lofty goals that isn’t a perfectionist is likely to go out, work hard, make mistakes – and then learn from them. The perfectionist, on the other hand, is likely to skip out on opportunities for fear of not being able to do them perfectly. The idea is that if you can’t do it perfectly, why try at all? Perfectionists accept fewer opportunities, complete fewer projects, and have less sustainable success than the average person.

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THE FLAVORS OF PERFECTIONISM

There are 3 different kinds of perfectionism:

  • Self Oriented – the pressure on yourself to be perfect
  • Socially Prescribed – the belief that others around you expect you to be perfect
  • Other Oriented – the desire for others to be perfect.

A you can see we aren’t just doing it to ourselves. The social pressure of perfectionism is also on the rise, and it’s one of the most damaging forms of perfectionism there is. The socially prescribed perfectionism has been linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and increased attempts or completions of suicide.

The inner perfectionism itself is not actually the disorder, though. It’s the intersection of the desire for perfectionism and other personality traits that causes issues.

It’s not so much the desire to be perfect as it is the stress and anxiety you feel about others potentially seeing your perceived weaknesses or imperfections.

Or it’s the obsessive behavior that comes from worrying over your achievement, or how you look, or what you own.

Or ruminating over your imperfections and past mistakes and feeling anxiety/shame/guilt over inadequacies and unworthiness.

HOW DOES IT START?

Part of the struggle with perfectionism is that it starts so young. Researchers can see an indication of perfectionism in children as young as 7.

Many people believe they were born this way, but that’s not likely the case. It was simply ingrained at such a young age that you don’t remember it happening. I don’t remember learning my ABCs, but it’s because I was so young when I learned them. The lesson stuck, the experience of learning it didn’t.

Perfectionism starts as a coping mechanism of sorts. The belief that if I am perfect then my needs will be met and whatever is hurting me will stop.

Perhaps it was a strained relationship with a family member, and you believed that if you were perfect that they would be there for you and the relationship would be easy. Or perhaps you were abused and you believed that if you were perfect, they wouldn’t hurt you anymore. Or you simply observed a parent partaking in and insisting on perfection – for themselves or those around them – or both.

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Regardless of the cause the reason for it is something deeper than the sole pursuit of the perfection itself. It can be an indication of

  • a desire to seek security, love, or self worth
  • a sign of a desire for a deeper connection with others
  • a belief that you are inherently defective

Understanding the deeper cause, and working to deal with those feelings, is the work of coping with perfectionism. Simply trying to stop it or get over it will not change the root of the issue. As with many issues at this level, stopping a behavior without dealing with the root cause, will simply cause it to manifest in a different damaging behavior. 

CONCLUSION

If you feel like perfectionism is destroying your life, I urge you to see the care of a professional therapist/counselor. Many people are indeed suffering at the life damaging level.

However there are also a great many of us (yes, me included) that suffer with it in less obvious ways. Perhaps it’s stopping you from taking a great leap in your business. Maybe it prevents you from taking that art class you feel so drawn to. Maybe you never feel satisfied with your accomplishments. Because the perfectionism doesn’t dominate your life, it can feel like you have control of it – when really it’s ever so subtly the other way around. 

This is where coaching can help (which can happen alongside or after therapy, if it’s necessary). By working through how you want to go forward with your life, you can find what is stopping you and where it’s manifesting so that you and explore ways to overcome the behavior.

Next week I will be discussing the signs of perfectionism and some ways that you can help yourself through the rough patches.

If you feel like perfectionism (and/or procrastination) are holding you back in life and you’d like to see how coaching can help, please fill out this form. I’d be happy to have a free consultation with you to discuss how I can help you.

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FURTHER READING

Below is a list of articles that I used in research for this post. If you’re interested in learning more, please check them out.

Disclaimer: I’m am not a psychologist/psychiatrist or medical professional of any kind. I am life coach that observes clients and has a penchants for medical articles. If you are suffering from suicidal thoughts, please seek professional care. The national suicide hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.