We now live in a culture that idolises perfectionism. The pressure to look and be the best is now higher than ever before. Once only to torment a select few, perfectionism has become a wide-spread phenomenon, fuelled by social media, modern parenting practices, meritocracy, and an increased competitive economy.
Perfectionism can be broadly defined as a personality trait that is characterized by a hypercritical relationship with one’s self and the setting of unobtainable standards (Curran & Hill, 2016). Having high standards for oneself and an internal drive to achieve can both be positive traits, however, this is not perfectionism. Perfectionism is dysfunctional, harmful, and can be tormenting because it is underscored by a person’s belief of themselves as being inherently flawed. It’s not just about a fear of failing, viewing the self as a failure and one way in which perfectionists to try to correct this is by being perfect, according to Paul Hewitt, co-author of Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment.
Personal struggles with perfectionism have been the subject of multiple TED talks, books, Instagram stories, Oprah discussions, and celebrity reveals such Martha Stewart, Serena Williams, Bree Van de Kamp, and James Cameron, yet so many people are still struggling in silence. We all know a perfectionist, or maybe you think you are one, but despite perfectionism being so common (and increasingly so), it is still widely misunderstood and hidden. How so? Well, mainly because people either do not realise that their perfectionism underlies most of their chronic life difficulties (e.g., depression, anxiety, burnout, eating disorder, interpersonal conflict, infidelity), or they are still in denial because they have a personal investment in their perfectionism. They view their perfectionism as beneficial because of the positive connotation it has to the word “perfect”. I mean, who does not want to think they are perfect, right?
Perfectionism is not a formal diagnosis, and therefore, there is no set list of criteria to meet. What it is, is a personality trait that varies on a continuum from normal to abnormal, and when abnormal, it can lead to a range of mental conditions including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, burnout, self-harm behaviours, addiction, obsessive compulsive disorders, and even suicide. Despite a lack of clear criteria, there are a few tell-tale signs that a person is most likely struggling with perfectionism. I’ve decided to list the 11 most reliable indicators below:
1. You procrastinate – a lot
One would think that perfectionists are relentless “do-ers” and that they are masters of productivity. Therefore, it may seem ironic that perfectionists are actually very prone to procrastination. This is because of their deep-rooted fear of failure. When perfectionists are faced with a big or important task, they will spend so much time worrying about doing something imperfectly, or failing at the task, that they become entirely immobilized and end up missing deadlines.
2. You are easy to judge or criticise others
Perfectionists are their own worst critics and do not show themselves any grace. They set unrealistic standards for themselves and tend to be very hard on themselves if they do not meet such standards. As such, they tend to project these insecurities and extreme standards onto others by being very critical of, or judging, others.
3. You live by lists
Perfectionists live by their lists and thrive on organization and efficiency. They tend to schedule their days to the tee. The upside of this is the feeling of progress, control, and productivity. Even though lists keep perfectionists productive, it may also serve as a double-edged sword when they procrastinate on those important tasks and end up belittling themselves for their “laziness” and “not getting stuff not done”.
Another caveat is that, for perfectionists, lists also come with a laser focus and checking things off the to-do list can come at the cost of extreme inflexibility. As such, they may try to eliminate any distractions in their day, and consequently, miss out on unscheduled activities and conversations that are not only good for emotional wellbeing, but also for deepening relationships and sparking creativity.
4. You always look fab!
Now, not all perfectionists are focused on their outward appearance, or having an organised environment around them, however, for those who are focused on their outward appearance tend to be hyperfocused in that area. They always look immaculately dressed, groomed, and styled. They are often the ones who’d rather die than be seen with unwashed hair or still dressed in their pyjamas. Carried to the extreme, being perfectionistic about appearance is a huge risk factor for the development of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.
5. You are results-driven
Perfectionists are achievement-orientated and results-driven, and therefore, often overlook the process of chasing a goal and will zone in on the attainment of a goal. As such, perfectionists see the goal and nothing else. Consequently, they end up being so concerned over avoiding failure and meeting their goal that they forget to enjoy the process.
6. Your achievements are short-lived
Perfectionist are extremely hard on themselves and are often unable to take credit or praise for their achievements, and if they do, these tend to be short-lived. Perfectionists will often attribute their successes to external events or forces i.e., not as a result of their own doing because, inherently, they believe they are flawed.
7. You cannot focus until things are in their rightful place
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a preference for tidiness, cleanliness, and orderliness, but when it turns into more of an obsessive and/or compulsive attitude, it can be a hidden sign of perfectionism. Preferring outer order to create inner calm is actually highly encouraged, however, it becomes detrimental when it takes priority over other urgent tasks or matters. For example, when you need to clear clutter or organise your environment and it ends up taking so much time that you do not get to do important stuff, or you run late because you just had to clean something first, or you tend to follow your kids around with a cloth and vacuum cleaner.
8. Your achievements are fuelled by fear
High achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals and by a desire to achieve them. They are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them and see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure
9. You are perfectionistic in one or more area(s) of life
Contrary to popular belief, perfectionists do not necessarily need every aspect of their lives to be perfect. Some perfectionists are quite comfortable living in a messy, disorganised room, but may be unable to tolerate a less than perfect result on an exam, promotion, or in athletic competition. Common areas of life that are often affected by perfectionism include work or study, relationships, grooming, personal hygiene, health and fitness, body image, sports, and housekeeping.
10. You struggle to delegate tasks
The standards that perfectionists hold themselves to are so high that they tend to think no one else is capable of meeting these standards. As such, whatever task needs to be done, perfectionists reason it is better if they just do it themselves. They often believe that things will not turn out the way they want it to and they will have to redo it anyway. Consequently, they not only fail to delegate but also end up with much more work than they are capable of handling .
11. You avoid asking for help
Because perfectionists like to portray the image of “perfection” they find it very difficult, sometimes even impossible, to ask for help. Regardless of whether this need is emotionally, physically, mentally, or financially. Often things will have to fall apart entirely before they will reach out for help, because they literally have no other choice but to ask for help.
So, what to do if you see some of these perfectionistic traits in yourself?
Firstly, don’t despair. Being organised, hard-working, and setting high standards are not inherently a bad thing! However, when you are pushed towards these aspects out of a deep-rooted fear of failure, or fear of not being good enough, then perfectionism will work against you.
Secondly, you will only truly live life when you slowly untie the perfectionistic rope around your neck. Depending on the extent of your perfectionism, it may require the help from a professional therapist, other times, it can work with self-help tools and guides. As stated by Gloria Steinem, in essence,
“perfectionism is internalized oppression”
Only you have the power to set yourself free!