For most of us who have it, perfectionism is probably both a blessing and a curse. The obvious upside is that perfectionism is associated with exceptional performance and achievement. Perfectionists tend to be driven to do whatever it takes to meet the high standards they set. But there are drawbacks to perfectionism too. In a recent article, psychologist David Burns says we are especially given to troubled relationships and mood disorders. It can also be detrimental to our physical health. Consider these ways it may be taking a toll on your life and well-being.
#1. You’re stressed out. A lot.
We perfectionists are usually black-and-white thinkers, placing situations at the extreme end of the continuum. Anything less than an A+ is equivalent to an F. Overcooking the chicken ruins the whole dinner. This all-or-nothing mentality produces intense pressure and anxiety to perform flawlessly at everything all the time. Of course, that is unattainable and we will make mistakes at times. But whereas this knowledge leads to self-compassion in others, it acts like a ticking tomb bomb for us…we’re just waiting for that inevitable (and in our minds, horrible) moment we finally fall short.
#2. Things are personal.
Perfectionists don’t separate themselves from things they do, so we view those things as a reflection of who we are. Take the above scenarios. Anything less than an A+ is the same as an F…and that means I’m stupid and I’ll never get a good job. Dry chicken ruins dinner…and that means I’m a terrible cook and mother because I can’t properly feed my family.
#3. You avoid challenges.
Because perfectionists usually have a fear of failure, we often procrastinate on things we don’t feel confident we’ll succeed at…if we even try them at all. This certainly means missed opportunities of all kinds—even valuable opportunities to learn and grow from failure (did just thinking about that make you break a tiny sweat like it did me?). Or maybe we avoid challenges because we’re afraid we will succeed…and then we’ll have to keep it up, and that can feel like too much pressure.
“Perfection is an illusion and those who chase it will find themselves unfulfilled their whole lives.”
#4. You’re emotionally fragile.
Whether it’s a getting second place or missing a typo in the office memo, every mistake is such a catastrophic event that we can obsess over it for days. Because perfectionists blow minor things into ginormous proportions, we don’t have the same level of resiliency that others have. If we’re honest, we’d probably have to admit that even small setbacks can produce emotional meltdowns, existential crises, and even temper tantrums.
#5. You have a hard time taking criticism.
No one likes to hear about their mistakes or flaws, but constructive criticism is essential for personal growth and healthy relationships. How can a marriage (or any relationship for that matter) be the best it can be if one or both people won’t hear anything from the other about a needed change? Winston Churchill said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” We don’t want to look at the “unhealthiness” within us, but just like a disease, it’s there whether we acknowledge it or not.
#6. You’re a people-pleaser.
We find people not liking or approving of us borderline unbearable, so we have trouble setting appropriate boundaries. We end up saying yes to requests and accepting treatment that we secretly resent. We might make decisions based on what others think instead of being true to ourselves.
#7. You avoid opening up to people.
Being vulnerable means being okay with others seeing your messiness. If we equate having flaws with being unlovable, we will always be in hiding. The problem is that no matter how much we put our flawless front, people will see through the cracks at times. Our lack of authenticity just ends up getting added the shortcomings list. These kinds of walls lead to isolation and loneliness, which is a steep price to pay for a strategy that doesn’t even work.
#8. You’re always struggling to feel good enough.
Perfectionists have a long list of ways we don’t measure up to what we “should” be and all the ways we want to be better. Growth is not a bad thing, but constant, self-defeating striving driven by shame robs us of so much joy. Controlled by perfectionism, we never feel at peace being who we are right where we’re at. It’s like running on a treadmill and seeing that for every mile run, another one is added to the odometer. Talk about exhausting!
#9. You’re highly critical of others.
Yes, we perfectionists are certainly hard on ourselves. But it’s important to realize that we’re probably hard on others too, and that can deeply hurt people we love and our relationships with them. Are you hard to please? Overly demanding? Do you expect flawlessness from people all the time and react negatively when they fall short? We might be intentionally inflicting stress and feelings of inadequacy on our family, friends, and colleagues. If you’re not sure whether you are…ask them. If they seem hesitant to tell you, you should probably assume the answer is yes.
You tell me…What are some other costs of perfectionism you’ve experienced? How do you take advantage of the positive while minimizing the negative aspects of being a perfectionist?
Cherie Miller, MS, LPC opened Dare 2 Hope Counseling to help clients all over the country get free from their food, weight, and self-confidence struggles. Her specialty is eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, orthorexia and other unhealthy eating patterns. Contact her here.