Are you putting too much pressure on yourself to meet extremely high standards? Do you then find fault with yourself when you don’t meet these expectations? You may be a perfectionist. Here, we take a look at the signs of perfectionism and how counselling can help develop a sense of self-worth.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is an intense need to complete something without mistakes or errors. It’s when someone sets unrealistic or extremely high expectations for themselves, getting caught up in the smallest of details. Those standards can be about any area of life, including work, relationships, health, appearance, and cleanliness. The pressure to maintain this level of perfectionism can lead to burnout and a build-up of anxiety.
Is perfectionism a mental health condition?
Perfectionism is a personality trait that can have mental health consequences in more extreme forms. It can be a common factor in some mental health conditions, such as eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Perfectionism is not the same as OCD - this involves intrusive and obsessional thoughts followed by compulsive urges. People with more extreme perfectionist tendencies are more at risk of meeting the diagnostic criteria for mental health conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder.
Types of perfectionism
There are different types of perfectionism, including self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism.
- Self-oriented perfectionists tend to be critical of themselves, relying on external achievements to feel a sense of worthiness.
- Socially prescribed perfectionists often feel that other people expect them to be perfect, internalising external expectations to feel satisfied.
- Other-oriented perfectionists typically set unrealistic expectations of others, being critical when they don’t match up.
Research shows that over the last thirty years, these three types of perfectionism have increased in the UK, USA, and Canada among students.
Signs of perfectionism
Despite perfectionism being a nuanced area, there are some traits that perfectionists typically have in common.
Dichotomous or all-or-nothing thinking is a key element of perfectionism. This involves seeing yourself and the world around you through the lens of absolutes, meaning one thing or the other. It’s a type of cognitive distortion that sorts experiences into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
Some examples of all-or-nothing thinking can include overgeneralising (taking an isolated event and making assumptions that it will always be this way) and catastrophising (making assumptions that a situation is worse than it actually is). In his article, What are your cognitive distortions?, psychotherapist Noel Bell (MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP) talks about the pitfalls of catastrophic thinking.
This is a form of fortune-telling and is particularly potent with the escalation of feelings of anxiety. You think everything will get worse when one single event is not going according to plan.
As perfectionists often feel inadequate or not ‘good enough’, they can be overly critical. This can mean expecting too much of themselves and sometimes others. Even small mistakes can be seen as a failure, so a less-than-perfect outcome can result in self-judgement and a negative inner critic.
As perfectionists tend to expect so much from themselves, they can sometimes spot flaws or imperfections in others more easily. If you recognise some of these patterns, you may find yourself becoming irritated by others or responding defensively to criticism, even if it’s from a well-intentioned place. Making mistakes can feel scary so you may push yourself to meet unrealistic expectations.
Setting unrealistic or rigid expectations can be described as holding unreasonable demands on yourself and others. When these expectations are not met, you may feel disappointed, angry, or a sense of being out of control. The search for things to be perfect can feel exhausting and overwhelming. You may find yourself feeling swamped with too much to do or getting lost in tiny details. This can restrict the way you go about life due to a fear of making a mistake. In her article, Perfectionism: Why your best never feels good enough, therapeutic counsellor Amy Fokkens (Dip.Couns. MBACP) talks about the internal pressure to maintain a level of perfectionism.
We don't have someone standing over us with a clipboard watching our every move and giving us a mark for everything we complete perfectly. Usually, we are the ones holding the clipboard!
Fear of failure
These unrealistic standards can result in fear of failure. This can affect people with perfectionism in different ways. Some examples include, worrying that making mistakes will let you and others down, and being so hard on yourself that it stops you from achieving a goal. Research suggests that the fear of failure can be due to anxiety about experiencing embarrassment or shame. The fear can be felt so strongly, it sometimes means that you avoid giving things a go in the first place.
Perfectionists may get lost in past and future worries, leading to obsessive thinking. Feelings of shame can be especially common among perfectionism. This may result in intrusive thoughts about previous mistakes.
Procrastination may not be an obvious link to perfectionism since this type of behaviour can go against being productive. People with perfectionism may be so anxious about getting something wrong or making a mistake, they become demotivated or preoccupied. If you tend to procrastinate, you may find you put off starting a task or give up halfway through. You may also find that you avoid making decisions in case something goes wrong.
This can lead to a perfectionism-procrastination loop. Unrealistic expectations quickly lead to a fear of failure and procrastination - making the goal of perfection even more unlikely. As perfectionists tend to feel every minor setback, they can display avoidant coping strategies when faced with the worry that something may not be perfect.
If you’re feeling stuck in a loop of procrastination, you may find it helpful to read life coach and hypnotherapist Emma Humphrey’s article What is your procrastination really trying to tell you?
What is perfectionism caused by?
There can be many reasons for perfectionism, such as low self-esteem and a need to be in control. In her article, Perfectionism: A flawed badge of honour in modern society, Billie Dunlevy (MBACP Accred) talks about how perfectionist impulses are often formed in childhood. She talks about perfectionism being a strategy to help cope with any anxiety that comes with the need to look for approval from our caregivers.
Perfectionism might seem like it is striving for excellence and caring about personal growth but at its heart, it’s actually about a deep need for approval. It is an other-oriented way to live that is less about what matters to you and your needs, and is far more concerned with what others think of me.
She shares how we might feel the need to ‘win love’ from our family home, and how attachment issues can be at the root of perfectionist traits. She also mentions the drawbacks of having parents that ‘overpraised’ achievements, “you could have really taken that to heart, resulting in a belief such as: ‘I am my achievements, and my worth is determined by how well I achieve them.’” Both genetics and the environment we grew up in increase the likelihood that a person will develop perfectionism.
The difference between perfectionism and conscientiousness
There is a distinct difference between healthy (or adaptive) perfectionism and maladaptive perfectionism, where there are unrealistic or impossible standards. Adaptive perfectionism is a conscientiousness to achieve high standards without intense bouts of self-criticism or fear of failure. Some examples of healthy perfectionism or conscientiousness that high achievers may display are:
- acknowledging a job well done, even if there were mistakes or flaws
- supporting others to be the best they can be without criticism
- enjoying the journey of fulfilling a goal, rather than getting to the endpoint
- bouncing back from disappointment when things didn’t work out
How to overcome perfectionism
If you’re struggling with perfectionism and are looking to lessen some of its negative consequences, here are some things that may be helpful.
- Practice meditation to help you stay rooted in the present moment, coming away from the fear of failure.
- Step away from situations or people that cause you to compare yourself with others e.g. social media.
- Set attainable goals with a realistic timeline, such as breaking down a bigger task into smaller chunks to avoid the procrastination loop.
- Try not to overcome perfectionism ‘perfectly’; accept that some anxious feelings are OK and to be expected.
- Allow yourself some downtime with the intention of no purpose or outcome.
- Work on the idea that mistakes are part of growing, and we can be more successful when we learn from them.
- Seek help from a one-to-one therapist who can help you identify unhelpful behaviours and cultivate a space for self-worth and acceptance.
- Develop a deeper sense of self-compassion by speaking to yourself more kindly.
To learn more about how to reframe a negative inner voice, read, What is the negative critical voice? by psychotherapist Danielle Corbett (MBACP Accred, Adv. Dip).
How can I support a perfectionist child?
There are lots of different ways to help a child with perfectionist tendencies. If you’re the parent, the most important thing is to not feel bad or guilty. There are changes that caregivers can make, such as having reasonable expectations and focusing on the child’s effort rather than the outcomes. This can help children develop a growth mindset, bouncing back after setbacks and enjoying the process of trying.
Counselling and perfectionism
If perfectionism is left unchecked, it may cause further anxiety and behavioural issues. You can seek help at any age, even if you have been struggling with this problem for some time. As there are no official regulations in place about the level of training a counsellor needs when dealing with perfectionism, we recommend you seek a professional with experience in this particular area.
Different approaches can be useful when seeking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This aims to offer practical solutions to the problem by changing the way we think or behave in a situation. Amongst other types of therapy, internal family systems therapy (IFS) can also be helpful when it comes to challenging a critical inner voice and any overwhelming feelings of having to do things perfectly.
Psychotherapist and IFS therapist, Ellen Yun, explains more about IFS.
Working with a counsellor on a one-to-one basis can ensure you have the right kind of non-judgemental support while learning how to be self-compassionate and let go of the need to be perfect.
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