Perfectionism is often regarded as a positive personality trait because it can lead to high levels of achievement and success.
However, perfectionists are actually highly critical of themselves and others, and are driven by fear of failure, rejection, and not being good enough.
Perfectionism can deprive a professional of opportunities like these:
- A chef refuses to serve a new dish to customers because she is constantly criticizing it.
- A coach will not give a public speech unless he believes his delivery is flawless.
- A programmer works on a project for countless hours, even if it is already functional and meets the project’s requirements.
In this article, you will learn about the motivations and psychology behind perfectionism, as well as how it can harm your mental health and well-being. You will also learn how to effectively manage perfectionism.
Table of Contents
- The Psychology Behind Perfectionism
- How Does Perfectionism Show Up?
- Perfectionism and Procrastination
- How to Change Your Perfectionist Mindset: Step-by-Step Guide
- Final Thoughts
The Psychology Behind Perfectionism
Perfectionism is the desire to achieve or maintain an unrealistic standard of excellence or perfection. It is commonly characterized by an excessive desire for order, control, and perfection, which can result in feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and even depression.
“Perfectionism is more than pushing yourself to do your best to achieve a goal; it’s a reflection of an inner self mired in anxiety.” — Thomas S. Greenspon, psychologist and author of “Antidote to Perfectionism”
Perfectionism is classified into three types, each of which explains the psychological cause of perfectionism.
1. Self-Oriented Perfectionism
Perfectionism of this type is based on the belief that one’s self-worth is directly related to one’s ability to achieve perfection.
Those who suffer from self-oriented perfectionism are habitually harsh on themselves, setting unrealistic and impossible standards for themselves.
As a result, they may also feel a lack of satisfaction and fulfillment even after accomplishing their goals because they tend to focus on their mistakes and shortcomings.
This can lead to procrastination, avoidance of challenges, and self-sabotage, all of which hamper their ability to achieve their goals.
2. Other-Oriented Perfectionism
This type of perfectionism is based on the belief that the worth of others is directly related to their ability to meet the perfectionist’s expectations.
Those suffering from other-oriented perfectionism are oftenly controlling and critical of others, imposing unrealistic and high expectations on them. When others don’t live up to their expectations, they may consequently have negative thoughts and emotions like resentment, anger, and frustration. This leads them to face relationship difficulties and struggle to maintain healthy and positive relationships.
3. Socially-Prescribed Perfectionism
This kind of perfectionism is based on the idea that everyone only values you if you’re perfect in all facets of life.
Those who suffer from socially-prescribed perfectionism frequently feel pressure to meet the expectations of others and may experience negative thoughts and feelings such as anxiety, inadequacy, and depression as a result of failing to meet those perceived expectations. They may also have low self-esteem and struggle to express their own needs and desires.
Where Does Perfectionism Come from?
So, what causes all forms of perfectionism? It can be caused by both internal and external factors.
According to research, people with high levels of perfectionism have inflated egos, which can make them more vulnerable to feeling threatened by failure.
With a strong sense of self-importance as well as a desire for control and power, a person’s ego can drive them to strive for perfection in order to validate themselves and gain the approval of others.
Attachment styles can also contribute to the development of perfectionism. Attachment styles refer to how people form and maintain relationships with others.
Negative attachment styles, such as anxious or avoidant attachment, can result in perfectionism as a coping mechanism for feelings of insecurity and rejection.
Positive attachment styles, such as secure attachment, on the other hand, can facilitate people in developing a sense of self-worth and a healthy balance between striving for excellence and accepting imperfection.
Childhood experiences play a role in perfectionism’s development. Children who are constantly criticized or punished for failing to meet unrealistic standards may develop a fear of failure and a desire to strive for perfection in order to avoid criticism or punishment.
Furthermore, children who are constantly praised for their accomplishments may develop a sense of self-worth that is linked to their ability to achieve perfection. They may believe that they are unworthy of praise or love if they do not achieve perfection. This can have a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem and lead to a lifetime of perfectionism.
How Does Perfectionism Show Up?
Perfectionism can manifest itself in two ways:
- Positive perfectionism
- Negative perfectionism
Positive perfectionism is a type of perfectionism in which people set high standards for themselves and strive for excellence in a healthy and adaptive manner.
Positive perfectionists are driven to achieve their goals, but they do not let their perfectionism harm their own or others’ well-being. They can set realistic goals, accept feedback, and accept the possibility of failure while remaining determined to improve.
Positive perfectionists can be extremely productive and efficient in both their professional and personal lives as they view failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Negative perfectionism, on the other hand, is a type of perfectionism in which people have unrealistically high expectations of themselves and others and become overly critical of themselves and others when those expectations are not met.
A story about a former coworker is an example of a perfectionist. Let’s call him Michael….
Michael and I used to work at the same company, and he was a stickler for detail. This had previously served him well. He was always able to produce high-quality work, and he was promoted twice within a few years. However, as he quit his job and started his own business, things began to go wrong.
He told me at a startup event that he was spending more and more time on small details, trying to perfect every aspect of his business. He would frequently spend hours perfecting a single product specification before moving on to the product. As a result, he was unable to put any solid plans into action.
His perfectionism had an impact on his mental health as well. He was so often overwhelmed by the pressure to deliver flawless work and suffered from anxiety and stress. He found it difficult to unwind and enjoy his personal life because he was constantly thinking about work and how to improve it.
Fortunately, he recognized it before it was too late and began to change his perspective on mistakes and failures, regaining control of his work and life.
Examples of Perfectionism in Different Aspects of Life
Perfectionism can show up in a variety of ways in different aspects of life. Let’s look at some examples:
Perfectionists may struggle to complete tasks because they are constantly revising and reworking them in an effort to make them perfect. This can lead to procrastination because they may be hesitant to begin a task due to the pressure to complete it flawlessly.
Perfectionists may also struggle with delegating tasks to others because they do not trust others to do the job to their standards. As a result of taking on too much work and being unable to balance their workload, they may experience burnout.
Perfectionism makes it difficult to receive feedback and criticism too because perfectionists may interpret constructive criticism as a personal attack and may find it difficult to accept that their work is not perfect. This can stymie their professional development because they are unable to learn from their mistakes and improve their abilities.
Family & Relationships
Perfectionists may struggle with intimacy. They may be unwilling to be vulnerable and accept that they are flawed. As a result, they may find it difficult to form deep and meaningful connections with others.
Perfectionists may also struggle to express their feelings and thoughts because they are afraid of being judged or criticized. This can lead to breakdowns in communication and misunderstandings in relationships.
Perfectionism can even be detrimental to children. Children of perfectionists may internalize perfectionistic traits, causing low self-esteem, difficulty with self-compassion, and an inner critic. This can lead to problems in their future relationships as well as academic/career achievements.
While perfectionism can provide benefits such as high achievement, when it becomes maladaptive, it can have a negative impact on a person’s life, including family and relationships.
Perfectionists may constantly strive for an impossible standard of perfection, leading to feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure. Constant stress and anxiety can have a negative impact on a person’s physical and mental health, leading to conditions such as depression, anxiety, and weakened immunity.
Perfectionism and Procrastination
Perfectionism and procrastination are frequently discussed together because they can be closely related. Perfectionists may struggle with procrastination because they are afraid of making mistakes or failing to meet their own high standards. They may spend so much time trying to make everything perfect that they become overwhelmed and fail to begin or complete tasks.
Furthermore, perfectionists may put off starting a task because they are afraid they will not be able to complete it to their own high standards. They may become paralyzed by the fear of not being able to do something perfectly, which leads to procrastination.
For perfectionists, procrastination can be a form of self-sabotage because they don’t want to risk failure by starting a task that they aren’t certain they can complete perfectly. This can lead to a vicious cycle of procrastination and perfectionism, because as the perfectionist puts off starting a task, the pressure and stress of completing it increases, and the fear of not being able to do it perfectly increases.
Procrastination can also be a way for perfectionists to avoid the possibility of failure and the fear of being judged or criticized. They may wait until the very last minute to finish a task, leaving less time for feedback and criticism.
If you want to learn more about the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination, and how to break the cycle, read How to Break the Perfectionism-Procrastination Loop.
How to Change Your Perfectionist Mindset: Step-by-Step Guide
If you’re a perfectionist who feels like it’s holding you back, it’s time to change your habits and mindset.
There are several strategies you can use to overcome your perfectionist tendencies and achieve greater success in life:
1. Abandon the All-or-Nothing Mindset
When it comes to perfectionism, a common mindset is that you either want to do something well or not at all. The problem with this is that it denies the significance of the process.
Achieving greatness stems from the experience and insights gained during this process, which allows you to fine-tune and apply for future success. Despite the perfectionist mind’s best efforts, this inadvertently reduces the likelihood of overall failure.
The all-or-nothing mentality is common among perfectionists and can be a significant impediment to change. Think in extremes with the all-or-nothing mindset, where something is either perfect or a failure.
To change this mindset, and ultimately change the perfectionism mindset, it is necessary to adopt a more balanced and realistic perspective:
- Practice flexibility: Be open to different ways of doing things and different outcomes. Be open to new ideas and don’t get stuck in a rigid way of thinking.Don’t get stuck in a rigid way of thinking and be open to new ideas.
- Focus on progress, not perfection: Recognize that progress is a journey and that making mistakes and learning along the way is acceptable.
- Embrace uncertainty: Recognize that life is uncertain and that it is okay not to have all the answers. Learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and to have faith in your ability to deal with whatever comes your way.
- Practice self-compassion: Be kind to yourself and remember that everyone makes mistakes. Practice self-compassion and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can.
By implementing these strategies, you can learn to abandon the all-or-nothing mindset and adopt a more balanced and realistic view of life. This can help to change the mindset of perfectionism.
2. Reframe Failures As Opportunities
Reframing failure is the process of changing how we think about and perceive failure. It involves shifting our mindset and perspective on failure so that it is no longer viewed negatively, but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Instead of thinking in black and white terms, try to reframe your thoughts in a more balanced and realistic manner. Instead of thinking, “I failed, so I’m a failure,” consider, “I didn’t get the result I wanted, but I learned something valuable that will help me do better next time.”
Here are a few more ways to reframe failure:
- Failure is not a reflection of your worth: Failure does not reflect your worth; it is simply an indication that something did not go as planned.
- Failure is a necessary step towards success: Failure is an inevitable part of the success process. It would be impossible to learn and grow without failure.
- Change your language: How we talk about failure can have an impact on how we think about it. Use more neutral words like “mistake” or “setback” instead of negative words like “failure” or “loser.”
- Seek feedback: Failure can provide useful feedback to help you improve. Seek feedback from others to help you understand what went wrong and how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
By redefining failure in this way, you can start to see it as a chance to learn and advance rather than as a bad thing. This can help to alleviate the fear of failure and can be a huge step toward changing a perfectionism mindset.
3. Adapt the 80/20 Rule
Perfectionists are prone to missing the essence of something. However, it does not require complete perfection to be apparent.
The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle, states that roughly 80% of effects result from 20% of causes. That is, only 20% of your efforts can yield 80% of the results. Any more than this won’t make a significant difference, and it gives you the flexibility to fine-tune the details later.
What you need to do is identify the 20% of tasks that are the most important and prioritize them.
4. Sort Out the “Must Haves” from the “Good to Haves”
Prioritization, as previously stated, is critical to getting things done. When you have a long list of tasks to complete, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to perfect every aspect of the task. A perfectionist may also find it difficult to leave out ideas that they believe should be included.
However, failing to prioritize can degrade the quality of your work or project, causing you to fall behind or putting additional strain on yourself.
Making a list of the “must haves” and the “good-to-haves” before beginning any project is therefore a good idea. Make the ”must haves” a top priority and only include the “good-to-haves” if time allows.
Sorting out the “must haves” from the “good-to-haves” tasks can help you overcome perfectionism by allowing you to focus on the most important aspects of the task while letting go of minor details.
Our Superstructure Method is all about separating the “must haves” from the “good-to-haves.” find out more here: How to Simplify Decision Making With the Superstructure Method
5. Set a Time Limit Using the Parkinson’s Law
Setting a time limit prevents you from becoming overly perfectionistic by forcing you to focus on completing the task within the allotted time frame. This is exactly how Parkinson’s Law works.
Parkinson’s Law states that work will take as long as we want it to. If you give yourself four hours, you will complete it in four hours. If you give yourself three hours, you will complete the task in three hours. If you don’t set a time limit for yourself, it will take forever.
Setting a time limit can help to combat perfectionism by instilling a sense of urgency and the need for focus. When you know you only have a certain amount of time to complete a task, you are less likely to get bogged down in details and more likely to focus on completing it. This can help you avoid procrastination and unnecessary revisions by forcing you to prioritize the most important aspects of the task and make quick decisions.
Setting a time limit can also help you in establishing realistic expectations for yourself. When people have an infinite amount of time to complete a task, they may feel the need to be overly perfectionistic. When they are under time constraints, they are more likely to recognize that some aspects of the task may not be worth the extra effort.
Furthermore, setting a time limit for yourself helps to avoid the trap of analysis paralysis, in which people keep thinking and analyzing but do nothing. A time limit helps you complete the task while also reminding you that it is better to complete something than to strive for perfection.
Don't have time for the full article? Read this.
Perfectionism is the desire to achieve or maintain an unrealistic standard of excellence or perfection.
There are 3 kinds of perfectionism: Self-Oriented Perfectionism, Other-Oriented Perfectionism, Socially-Prescribed Perfectionism
Self-Oriented Perfectionism is based on the belief that one’s self-worth is directly related to one’s ability to achieve perfection.
Other-Oriented Perfectionism is based on the belief that the worth of others is directly related to their ability to meet the perfectionist’s expectations.
Socially-Prescribed Perfectionism based on the idea that everyone only values you if you’re perfect in all facets of life.
Ego is one cause of perfectionism: A person’s ego can drive them to strive for perfection in order to validate themselves and gain the approval of others.
Negative attachment styles such as anxious or avoidant attachment, can result in perfectionism as a coping mechanism for feelings of insecurity and rejection.
Both children who are constantly criticized or punished for failing, and children who are constantly praised for their accomplishments are prone to becoming a perfectionist.
Perfectionists may struggle with procrastination because they are afraid of making mistakes or failing to meet their own high standards.
To change the perfectionist mindset, abandon the all-or-nothing mindset by practicing flexibility, focusing on progress, embracing uncertainty and practicing self-compassion.
Reframing failure as an opportunity to learn and grow can also help to change a perfectionism mindset.
Another way to change a perfectinoism mindset it to adpot the 80/20 rule and focus on completing the 20% tasks that are the most important.
Then, prioritize tasks by sorting out the “must haves” from the “good-to-haves.”
Lastly, set a time limit using the Pakinson’s Law to establish realistic expectations and instill a sense of urgency and the need for focus to combat perfectionism and get things done
Perfectionism is about achieving the impossible and the unreachable through a never-ending pursuit of perfection.
You can’t always get rid of the perfectionist in you (that’s perfectionism), but you can train yourself to be a more positive perfectionist. This can be accomplished by always keeping the big picture in mind. Taking a step back before diving in can save you a lot of time and allow you to focus on a better outcome.
Featured photo credit: Lucas George Wendt via unsplash.com
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