The Dark Side of Perfectionism
Do you often find it tough to relax and unwind? You work hard, but feel like your best isn’t good enough? Worry that people will look down on you if you aren’t performing flawlessly? All of these are sneaky signs that you might be suffering from a case of perfectionism. Suffering from perfectionism? You heard that right.
As a culture, we uphold perfectionism as a positive quality that we should be proud of. So, it’s no surprise that perfectionism is on the rise. But it is not something we should glorify. In fact, perfectionism can be detrimental to your mental health.
What is Perfectionism?
At this point, you may be confused. How can doing a great job and striving to do your best be a bad thing? Well, let’s back up. Perfectionism goes beyond doing your best. When you suffer from perfectionism, excellence is merely okay, and your best never feels good enough. It proves harmful to your mental health, your wellbeing, and even your relationships.
In a study on perfectionism, two prominent experts identified three main variations which are characterized by the following:
- Self-oriented perfectionism - individuals impose unrealistically high standards on themselves
- Socially prescribed perfectionism - people feel that others expect them to be perfect
- Other-oriented perfectionism - individuals have unreasonably high expectations of others
Why is Perfectionism Harmful?
It is not uncommon to struggle with some combination of the three, all of which are problematic for different reasons. Additionally, just because someone is a perfectionist in one area of life does not necessarily mean that they will be in all. Someone may be a perfectionist at work but very forgiving of mistakes at home, or vice versa. But even struggling with perfectionism in one area can have negative consequences.
Holding yourself to unachievable standards is harmful because it can not only prevent you from doing work you’re proud of, but it can also seriously hurt your wellbeing. The fear of not being perfect on the first try has the potential to cause you to procrastinate, which can result in undue stress and anxiety.
Procrastination in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and may even fuel creativity, but in order for it to be beneficial, the procrastinator must not be afraid to fail.
But if the procrastination is due to perfectionism, it prevents experimentation and squashes creativity, and leads to you running up against time constraints. This ultimately causes stress and can compound your feelings of inadequacy, a truly vicious cycle. Living with a harsh inner critic also has severe consequences for your health. Researchers have found perfectionism to be associated with conditions such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
Socially prescribed perfectionism is especially detrimental to your mental health. This variation of perfectionism has been linked to anxiety, depression, and unfortunately, suicidal ideation for some.
You are human and as such, a social creature. It is naturally inherent to want to be viewed positively by those you care about. But if you take that to the extreme of believing you need to be perfect to be worthy of respect, the effects can prove crippling mentally and emotionally.
Socially prescribed perfectionism has the potential to harm not only you but your relationships, by causing you to become closed off because of the pressure you feel to maintain unrealistic expectations. An even worse result is that you may struggle to ask for help, fearing it would be viewed as a sign of ineptitude.
Other-oriented perfectionism harms relationships in a different way. Working closely with someone who has this type of perfectionism can be exhausting and demoralizing. Other-oriented perfectionists often lack the soft skills that are crucial in a workplace, such as empathy, communication, and adaptability.
Those working with this type of perfectionist deal with a lack of understanding and forgiveness, rather than healthy constructive criticism, when mistakes are made. Mistakes are not seen as opportunities to learn and grow but instead are used to shame and demoralize.
This will cause people to be afraid to communicate openly because they are worried about disappointing the other. All of these factors lead to a toxic and strained relationship that is damaging to both partners, as well as their performance.
How to Improve Perfectionist Tendencies
Recognize when you’re being a perfectionist
The first step in addressing any perfectionist tendencies is to recognize them. You’re off to a great start by reading this article. You can also check out this site for a more comprehensive list of indicators of perfectionism.
Ultimately cultivating more self-awareness and mindfulness will help bring your perfectionism and other harmful tendencies to your attention. Many people improve these skills through habitual practices such as mindful walking, yoga, or journaling.
Prioritize getting things done over getting things perfect
Earlier we mentioned the vicious cycle of procrastination. The only way to break this cycle is just to get in there and start working. Know that your work is probably not going to meet your standards right away, and that’s perfectly okay. First drafts are meant to be rough. The purpose is to get your ideas down on paper, however messy they may look. Iterations are where you can build upon those ideas and perfect them.
Accepting What You Can Control and What You Can’t
Learning to let go of what you can’t control will help address all three variations of perfectionism. Starting with self-oriented perfectionism, when you become more aware that there are factors out of your control, such as resource or time limitations, it helps you to be more forgiving of yourself.
The next step is to learn to base your self-esteem more on the factors that are completely in your control. For example, rather than beating yourself up over your performance, you can celebrate how hard you’ve worked. Instead of being hard on yourself for struggling in your personal relationships, you can be proud of how much effort you put into being a kind person.
In terms of socially prescribed perfectionism, understanding that you have no control over how others see you is crucial. This may sound scary, but it can be quite freeing. You are in control of your actions and your choices, and nothing else. Put in your best effort, and do what you love, and you will be proud of the person you are. If someone views you negatively, that is not a reflection of you. And keep in mind that most people are not judging you as harshly as you may think, so working unnecessarily hard to please them doesn’t benefit anyone.
Additionally, letting go is especially relevant to other-oriented perfectionism. It’s important to give others space to make mistakes, learn, and grow. This doesn’t mean that you can’t offer input and support to help move their process along. But ultimately their work is their own, and there is no need to add to your plate by worrying about things that aren’t your responsibility.
A huge cause of perfectionism is failing to appreciate the amount of effort it takes to achieve greatness. You can’t expect yourself to be an amazing athlete never having trained before, or to have Nobel-prize-worthy ideas at the drop of a hat. Great results take time and effort and usually come from iterations of the original idea. Expecting perfection on a first try sets you up for failure and disappointment. Everything is a process, and trusting your process will allow you to be more creative and gain confidence in your abilities. Practice makes perfect, so just keep practicing – and you will reach perfection, instead of chasing perfectionism.
Imperfection is what makes us human, it’s a beautiful thing, and it allows you to discover things that you never would have imagined.