Are you one of those folks who always has to have things done right? Do you hate the very thought of failure and are you always striving to achieve? Do you set the most lofty goals and find yourself driven to succeed? If you are one of those folks some call “perfectionistic,” is it necessarily a bad thing?
There’s a big difference between striving for excellence and lacking the ability to ever be satisfied. There’s also a big difference between being conscientious and being so demanding on yourself and others that you’re never content and can never let up. In short, there’s a difference between harboring some fairly normal and healthy perfectionist tendencies, and having a need to achieve and be validated that’s so pathologically unreasonable that your entire sense of self-worth depends on these things. The former is really quite adaptive in many respects, especially in certain life endeavors, while the latter almost always invites a host of social and psychological problems.
I know that if I were to need brain surgery tomorrow, I’d want to be in the hands of a physician who not only has a lot of knowledge but also is meticulous in the execution of what she or he knows. When it comes to my brain, I’m not about to entrust its care to someone who adopts a lackadaisical approach! I want a person who is detail oriented, committed to doing all they can, and who expects the same of their colleagues in the operating room. In some cases, perfectionism is more than just adaptive, it’s a desirable characteristic. So when does perfectionism become a problem? Some researchers say it has to do with both the nature of the standards we set and how we regard ourselves when we fail to measure up.
Some folks set goals that are so unrealistic that they’re truly impossible to achieve. Some tend to base their entire sense of self-worth on whether or not they attain the irrational demands they place upon themselves. A relatively healthy perfectionist both enjoys the pursuit of excellence and can cope with the experience of failure. But the more unhealthy or “neurotic” perfectionist feels constantly driven, can’t be content even with substantial achievement, and is prone to engaging in merciless self-condemnation when they think they’ve failed in some way.
How can you tell when your perfectionism is getting out of control? Here are a few indicators:
- Your all-or-none approach approach to things is so pervasive that it leaves you feeling paralyzed. You might have your sights set so high and be gripped by so much fear you can’t possibly rise to the occasion that you keep stalling and procrastinating, getting nowhere fast.
- Your need to control people, places, and things has become so great that your emotions, social life, self-care habits, and behavior both at home and at work have gotten out of control. You no longer have time for fun, you’re not eating or sleeping right, and relations with your family, friends and co-workers have become strained.
- You’ve become so sensitive that you get inordinately defensive or lash out at those who dare to criticize you or offer you advice. You tend to take what others have to say so negatively and personally that you make villains out of those trying to help or engage in unnecessary self-berating.
- You show signs of anxiety. You might be obsessive to the point that try as you might, you simply can’t let something go mentally. Or you might have become compulsive to the point that you can’t allow yourself to take a break or relax. You might experience “free-floating” anxiety, feeling persistently anxious and jittery.
- You show signs of depression. Your concerns might have you so irritable that you can barely stand to interact with others and other people often feel uncomfortable dealing to you. You might start to isolate yourself. You might find your sleep and appetite habits changing. As you direct your anger and frustration inward, you may find yourself feeling increasingly despondent, helpless, hopeless, and worthless.
Ultimately, the quick test outlined above for whether your perfectionism is of the healthy or unhealthy kind hinges on how happy you are. If you’re feeling energized and finding joy in your endeavors and achievements, you’re probably not letting your perfectionism get the better of you. But if you’re miserable largely because of the unrelenting pressure you put on yourself to do and to be what almost no one possibly could, then you might need to seek some help. Most of the time that’s going to involve examining the kind of self-talk you frequently engage in and modifying some of those all-or-none, black-and-white, irrational, and unrealistic ways of thinking about things as well as solidifying a sense of self that’s not so unhealthily dependent upon extraordinary performance. In cutting yourself some slack, you just might find yourself both doing and feeling a lot better than you ever thought possible.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by