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Understanding perfectionism

Understanding perfectionism

Perfectionism is painful. It is like constantly setting yourself up to fail.

Being a perfectionist means someone is living a life full of constant precise demands. This is followed by feeling continually frustrated and disappointed by not achieving all of these.

A perfectionist will struggle obsessively and incessantly towards an eternally growing list of goals. Yet so many of them are unrealistic and unachievable.

But they won’t or can’t seem to realize this. When they don’t achieve their goals there is no acceptance.

Instead there will be feelings of low self-worth and their self-esteem will keep nosediving. So in an attempt to feel better they will strive to achieve more and more.

It is a vicious circle.

Perfectionism and mental health

Rather than being a mental health disorder, perfectionism is a personality trait. But because perfectionism means someone will not achieve or reach many of their goals it can cause stress, anxiety and depression.

Perfectionism can also be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But although often spoken about together, OCD and perfectionism are not the same.

OCD is a mental health condition in which people have unwanted recurring ideas, thoughts and/or obsessions. These make them feel driven to do something over and over again, such as checking that a tap or light is turned off.

Perfectionism can also be a factor in eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, workaholism, self-harm, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide. 

What causes perfectionism?

Perfectionism is increasing. This is particularly among young people – up to 30 percent identify with perfectionist tendencies.

It is believed that the extra pressures of modern society are behind much of this. A great deal of this comes from social media with images of, for instance, the “perfect” face, hair and body.

But there are also major reasons formed during childhood. For instance, if someone was only praised as a child when they achieved something they may think that the only way they can possibly be loveable is if they achieve things.

Then if someone was frequently criticized as they grew up, perfectionism can be an attempt to not allow any reason for criticism. It won’t work as humans are not perfect, and so the self-critic will always most likely be very loud and relentless.

Sometimes it can be the sign of childhood abuse in some form. As an adult someone who has suffered from such abuse lives their life thinking: “If I can just be perfect all the time, then I can be acceptable and accepted.”

Again, often stemming from childhood there might be feelings of never being good enough that has created huge insecurity. So this person’s perfectionism is driven by a fear of disapproval from other people.

What are the major signs of perfectionism

The major signs of perfectionism include:

  • Never delegating.

A perfectionist feels they are the only one who can do a certain task. This is because no one else can possibly do it to their impossibly high standards.

  • Procrastination.

Being a perfectionist means that many things are put off until the time when the person believes they can do it perfectly – which may be never. As well, many opportunities are not taken up for fear of failing at something. This can even be such as a social event where there’s a chance of not being perfect, so they decline the invitation.

  • Never being able to apologize.

To the perfectionist, saying sorry is an admission of not being perfect. They absolutely cannot do that. Because of this, any criticism they receive – even if it is constructive – cannot be accepted. In fact it is painful and frightening for them to hear it, so they will always be extremely defensive.

  • Being highly critical.

If other people do things, a perfectionist will be very critical of them because in their eyes they are not doing those things perfectly. They may not say this aloud, but it will be taking place in their thoughts and feelings (and later on in their behavior as they correct the “mess” the other person has made). Similarly the self-critical voice is constantly chirping away. Most perfectionists have very low self-esteem.

  • Being alone.

Due to being so critical and from so craving perfectionism, a perfectionist will drive people away. They will also frequently not want people around who they see as only likely to get things “wrong” (not perfect) and who will stop them from achieving their perfect goals. They also don’t want to invite in the possibility of someone criticizing them. Consequently, a perfectionist can appear aloof.

  • Setting impossibly high standards.

There is an all or nothing attitude in the perfectionist, but not at all in a positive way. It means that something simple like writing a brief work report can take them hours instead of mere minutes. Perfectionists not only set themselves levels and tasks that cannot possibly be done, they do the same for everyone else. Consequently, nothing and no one will ever be good enough – and so there is a continual state of feeling let down and disappointed.

What are the three types of perfectionism?

Perfectionism shows itself in three ways.

1. Self-oriented perfectionism. This is putting an unrealistic need to be perfect on oneself.

2. Other-oriented perfectionism. Putting unrealistic levels of perfection on other people.

3. Socially-prescribed perfectionism. This is when a perfectionist thinks other people will expect the same levels of perfectionism from them as they impose on themselves and others.

Here at Tikvah Lake Recovery, we spend time carefully listening to each guest to ensure their treatment is completely personalized. This is for the greatest chance of an effective and enduring recovery. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been especially proven to help perfectionists. This talk therapy helps to notice and change automatic thoughts established in childhood that have become dysfunctional patterns over time.

If you recognize perfectionism in yourself or someone you care about, get in touch with us today to chat about how we can help.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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