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The pitfalls of perfectionism

Last Modified: May 26, 2023

Healthy Mind


This post was written by Laura Oyer, PhD, HSPP, psychologist, Eating Disorder Program, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute – Park Center.

Do you know a person who walks into a room and notices the art on the wall is a little crooked and can’t relax until they straighten it? Or maybe someone who, when typing a paper or drafting an email, types it, reads, edits, re-reads, edits, and so on, trying to make it just right? Or maybe you resonate with these examples. These are just a couple of ways that perfectionism can show up in a person’s life.

As a psychologist who works with individuals who have eating disorders, perfectionism is something that comes up in therapy sessions, almost on a daily basis. What’s interesting, is how it can show up in ways one might not even notice or expect. Many of us have preconceived notions about perfectionism, imagining an individual with a flawless aesthetic; from their appearance to their home to their car, everything is pristine. However, there is another side to this coin that is less apparent and more internal.

Unrealistic expectations

One way internal perfectionism can appear for individuals is an inability to start a project or task, a state of being we often refer to as procrastination. Although there can be many reasons for this, perfectionism is definitely high on the list. Friends and family might see the person as lazy, lacking motivation, or disorganized and always waiting until the last minute; however, what is under the surface might be an internal voice that is highly critical and setting insurmountable expectations. As a client shared:

Writing this blip specifically about the topic is throwing me into a conundrum, so I’ll start there. Perfectionism tells me to write something so profound, something so life-changing, that it could win an award. But how realistic is that? I’m once again caught in this cycle of setting my standards too high for myself, so I’m frozen.

For these indivdiuals, their internal critic creates feelings of anxiety and fear, making it hard for them to start. They are paralyzed by their perception of what others expect them to perform or deliver. These individuals may wait until the final hours to do a task because the urgency and deadline creates more anxiety than completing the task perfectly, so it gets done in the last minute. Procrastinating creates a psychological buffer to failure because, “If I fail, it’s because I procrastinated, not because I’m less than perfect.”

Sitting it out

Another way internal perfectionism can surface is when someone doesn’t even try something, as they fear they might fail or be less than perfect. A client stated, I’m never going to live up to this perfect standard, so why even try?

Many individuals with this struggle may take roles or stay in relationships or careers that are “safe” and not pursue their dreams because of fear of failure or being less than impeccable. Another way this might manifest is if someone continues to point to all the reasons or barriers they can’t do something or continue to push off trying something (e.g., When I get married …, When I have kids …, When the kids move out …). Although this can prevent feelings of failure and shame, individuals often experience dissatisfaction and hopelessness, as they are not pursuing their dreams or living in line with their values.

Rigid thinking

This cycle shows up everywhere. Perfectionism is persistent and intentional. It tells us to be the best but not because we can be, because we have to be. There’s no flexibility with perfectionism–everything is rooted in black-and-white thinking, which is how perfectionism is tethered to various mental health disorders, addictions, etc.

As one client shared above, perfectionism occurs in the mind and creates rigid thoughts. I am either “good” or “bad.” I either “succeeded” or “failed.” There is no room for mediocre, good enough or just okay. Learning through failure is not allowed, and it’s better to have never tried than to try and fail. Additionally, due to the suffering this can cause internally, individuals often fall into unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as addictions, numbing behaviors, and/or the feelings manifest as anxiety or depression, or other mental health concerns.

There is hope!

After reading this, you may be thinking, “Wow, I really relate to this,” or maybe, “This describes [insert name] so well.” Well, good news … there's hope! In therapy, one thing I do is to have clients give this perfectionistic voice a name and start to talk with it. They ask it why it’s with them, what is it trying to help them do, what is it trying to prevent or protect them from, etc. Often, someone’s genetics/temperament combined with early life experiences developed this perfectionism part, and being able to understand what it’s trying to do is a helpful first step toward working with it versus against it.

Some examples clients have identified as the underlying roots to perfectionism include: getting affirmation and approval from caregivers or important people in their lives; avoiding feelings of shame and not feeling worthy or enough; and/or avoiding rejection, abandonment or criticism, just to name a few. Really taking time to reflect and understand this perfectionistic facet of themselves and what need it’s trying to meet is the starting line. After this part is identified and understood, therapy is a great tool to learn ways to work with this internal perfectionism. As a client shared:

Perfectionism is deceiving, especially to the perfectionist themselves. It is draining and can be unrecognizable, and requires more patience than anything. To all my perfectionists out there, my biggest advice (respectfully) would be to slow down. (Whatever that looks like for you!)

If you or a loved one is struggling with perfectionism and would like support, contact the Parkview Behavioral Health Institute at 260-481-2700 o explore how we might help.

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