Dr. Jonathan Hoffman
Perfectionism: Looking for a Perfect Path to a Place That Doesn’t Exist
Updated: Apr 26
Many good qualities are associated with perfectionism; perfectionistic individuals can accomplish amazing things. They might contribute to their workplaces or make incredible efforts to ensure their families have everything they need. We all owe a great deal to perfectionists since they are responsible for many breakthroughs in medicine, technology, and numerous other fields.
However, there are also many negatives associated with perfectionism. For example, it is common for perfectionists to find it difficult to feel satisfied for more than a brief moment. Additionally, perfectionists often have trouble connecting with others, especially those who can’t understand what drives them. At other times, people with perfectionism can feel “stuck” and cannot control it, even when it’s counter-productive. Not surprisingly, it can be very lonely and unhappy at the top for many perfectionists.
Perfectionism vs. Excellence
Unlike perfectionists, those who strive for excellence more constructively tend to accept that everyone, including themselves, has limitations and that some situations are beyond anyone’s control. These excellence-seekers also tend to lead more balanced lives and enjoy success more.
Certain perfectionists may start out this way – just trying to do very well, but, like dieters who somehow become anorexics, they might become ensnared in the “more is always better” trap over time. They are often plagued by the idea that “doing one’s best” isn’t good enough. Unlike people who value excellence, perfectionists are often less flexible, and rigid thinking can stifle creativity.
That’s not to say that trying to excel isn’t admirable. It’s just that perfectionists take it way too far. Perfectionism can squeeze any joy out of achievement because an endless parade of new and ever-higher goals occurs when one goal is met. This pattern often leaves perfectionists in a vicious cycle where every finish line is also the starting line for the next race.
Are all perfectionists the same?
Perfectionism comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s focused on a deep need to go beyond the nth degree on a task at whatever cost as if it’s a matter of life or death. In other cases, it’s excessively worrying about what might happen if another person perceives a slight flaw in the way they physically look.
Then there are those perfectionists for whom making even the tiniest little misstep in personal integrity or morality is totally inconceivable, as it would be irreparable. But all forms of perfectionism are defined by a severe loss of perspective and habitually mistaking molehills for mountains.
The onset and development of perfectionism varies from person to person. While not all perfectionism starts in childhood, it often does, and it can be minimized or even perceived as a positive, especially if it results in high grades or special recognition. At first, parents are sometimes proud of their “little perfectionist,” not realizing the long-term risks.
In other cases, some perfectionists are raised in families where they are overly criticized for making mistakes and fear making even the most minor errors. Often, such parents are anxious and worried that any failure their child might experience means they are bad parents. Others are too caught up in the ambition for their child to succeed and “beat the competition” and lose perspective about what being a healthy parent truly means.
In adults, perfectionism can be triggered by workplace pressures or life stressors like financial worries.
It is important to remember that perfectionists are not necessarily perfectionistic in every aspect of their lives, just those important to them. However, a few are indeed perfectionists across the board!
Can perfectionism affect one’s health?
Constantly striving for perfection is futile and hazardous to your physical and mental well-being because it's relentlessly stressful. Too much stress is bad for your heart and other elements of general health, including your sleep schedule. Because they tend to live in fear of showing a flaw, perfectionists can suffer from performance anxiety, so much so they may start to avoid public speaking or taking even small risks for fear of being embarrassed.
Perfectionism, no surprise, is also associated with higher levels of anxiety problems and depression, which in turn can lead to conditions like alcohol abuse or other forms of addiction. Would you be shocked to learn that a higher risk for suicide is associated with being a perfectionist? Well, it is.
Perfectionists often find life's fun and rejuvenating parts, like stress-busting vacations and lazy Sundays, a waste of time. Many functions under a perpetual feeling of pressure to meet self-imposed or unrealistic deadlines. As might be expected, many perfectionists channel this trait into being workaholics, which oftentimes leads to exhaustion and “burn-out” far too early in their lives. Even so, that may not be a sufficient wake-up call, and they keep going and going and going, like the Eveready Energizer Bunny, but without the smile.
Being a Perfectionist Isn’t Easy
Since they are chasing a mirage, it makes sense that perfectionists often feel insecure and have “impostor syndrome,” meaning that they feel like frauds despite objective achievements. Sadly, however, as the “perfection trap” progresses, what seems like early success can be replaced by obsessiveness, rigid thinking, obstinacy, and procrastination. Why procrastination? As perfectionism grows, so does the fear of making any mistake which can lead to indecisiveness and the dreaded state of “paralysis by analysis.”
Perfectionism, ironically, can also interfere with managing time and setting priorities. While trying to perfect whatever they focus on, perfectionists can lose track of time and become so consumed by small details that they miss the bigger picture.
Being a perfectionist is hard work, and as life goes on, they often end up feeling like the proverbial hamster running as fast as possible on a wheel that goes nowhere. They also frequently believe they are undeserving of any compliment received while perceiving every criticism as valid and feeling each one like an arrow to the heart.
If You Have a Perfectionist in Your Life
Oftentimes, perfectionism is extremely stressful for the people involved in their lives, especially co-workers and loved ones!
A relationship with perfectionists can be challenging, given their unrealistic and often self-punishing lifestyles and emotions. Such characteristics can also unintentionally impede warmth and availability in a perfectionistic parent, as well as likability and productivity in the workplace. Among work colleagues, perfectionists often “don’t get it,” and can be detrimental to productivity, completing tasks on schedule, and creating a positive workplace culture.
Rationalization is common, and they are prone to conclude that others are unwilling to work hard and sacrifice as much as they do to justify their behavior. Secretly, they can feel “superior” as well, but this façade will likely be replaced by increasing insecurity if their perfectionistic tendencies begin to misfire.
If you want to help a perfectionist, it’s important, to begin with compassion and not get into a power struggle that will probably be lost. Many perfectionists can learn the value of taking their lead foot off of the gas pedal, so to speak, and ratchet it down. It’s important not to be mocking of perfectionistic tendencies, and having a gentle sense of humor about their sky-high expectations and fears of minor mistakes is sometimes helpful as well.
It should be noted that true perfectionists are generally resistant to change and the last to acknowledge that they have a problem and seek, let alone accept, help. I mean, how could they? It would mean acknowledging they aren’t perfect! If challenged, they may point out all the areas in which they aren’t perfectionistic, like someone with a drinking problem who defends themselves by singling out the times they didn’t drink excessively.
First Steps if You’re a Perfectionist (or Raising One)
If you recognize that perfectionism is undermining your life, and you want to make changes, try trimming just one goal back a bit as an experiment. See if it turns into the catastrophe you expect. Odds are it won’t, and you may find some benefit from taking this chance that you can build on.
Of course, if you are too entrenched in this way of life, realistically, you may need professional assistance to make the needed changes. Sometimes perfectionists are afraid that they will lose everything if they let go, even a little. On the contrary, they have everything to gain when they let go.
Despite the expectations of many perfectionists, less may truly be more. Taking better care of themselves and being more well-rested and refreshed for the next day can make an enormous difference in their moods and reactivity.
Parents often say they want their children to be happy, but lasting happiness is one goal that most perfectionists will never achieve. Therefore, if you are a parent and have a budding perfectionist, it’s important to acknowledge and address the problem, even if your child doesn’t want to. Unfortunately, when perfectionism is left to fester, it tends to get worse.
It’s important to remember that perfectionism often is rooted in good intentions, which, unfortunately, have backfired. However, when these tendencies are recalibrated as more reasonable approaches to life, perfectionists can enormously contribute to whatever pursuit they are focused on.
Nonetheless, perfectionism is ultimately a difficult road for all concerned—those who have it and the significant others who are impacted. For each battle perfectionists momentarily win, the war for a happy and fulfilling life, filled with satisfying and healthy relationships at home, school, or work, will likely be lost. After all, there can be no good path, much less a perfect one, to a non-existent place, which is what perfectionism is.
However, significant positive changes are possible if those with perfectionism can learn to understand and accept its self-defeating nature and modify perfectionism-related erroneous beliefs and self-defeating behaviors. Ultimately, perfectionists can tolerate the inevitability of mistakes and accept that nothing is perfect, even themselves.
With effective treatment, perfectionists can also learn skills to be constructive excellence-seekers with balance in their lives. Perhaps they can even take some well-earned time off once in a while to have some fun! By taking better care of themselves, “recovering” perfectionists might actually wind up accomplishing more than ever.
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