Behind the Mask: The Truth on Perfectionism

Woman upset sitting at desk

“When you accept yourself, the whole world accepts you”  
– Unknown

With a graceful touch, I guide the crayon along the edge of the black border, ensuring the vibrant colours stay neatly confined within its boundaries. Each stroke brings a sense of accomplishment, filling the blank spaces with hues that dance against the contrast of the dark lines. A smile of pure satisfaction graces my lips as the picture begins to take shape — it’s so beautiful.

Choosing a new crayon, I proceed to the next section of the drawing, my movements precise and deliberate. But suddenly, the crayon snaps, leaving an unwanted streak across the forbidden territory outside the border. Shocked, I stare at the defiant mark, my heart sinking as tears threaten to spill. A trembling begins in my lower lip as despair washes over me. How could this happen? My perfect creation is now ruined by an irreparable streak. The urge to crumple it up and throw it away is strong, but I can’t — it’s trapped within the pages of a book. My entire picture feels tainted, ruined beyond repair. In this moment, I feel like I’ve failed utterly.

This is one of the earliest memories I have of how perfectionism showed up for me as a child. Little did I know at that innocent age that this one personality trait would fundamentally impact and shape the entire course of my life.  
Perfectionism … 
It has become quite the buzzword in the self-development, self-improvement, self-help world. Unfortunately, people still have huge misconceptions around what perfectionism really is. Some people think of perfectionism as a preference for having things neat and orderly and being very meticulous and pedantic about things. Others view it as merely setting high standards for oneself and others; and are eager to label themselves as perfectionists only to wear it as a badge of honour, thinking it is something to be praised. Yes, these characteristics can often form part how perfectionism shows up, but it is not what it is. Harmful perfectionism is dysfunctional, destructive, exhausting, and tormenting, and has nothing to do with healthy personal development and ambitious strivings.
Perfectionism, at its core, is a healthy personality trait, just like narcissism, neuroticism, conscientiousness, etc. In fact, we all have some degree of the trait perfectionism, but some individuals just score higher on this trait than others. However, scoring high on any specific trait does not make it pathological, just as a person who scores highly on narcissism does not make the person a narcissist. What makes our normal personality traits harmful – and thereby pathological – is when they become maladaptive. In other words, they lean into the extremes and negatively impact our personal, social, and occupational lives. 
If I have to define perfectionism “by the book”, then according to the esteemed According to the American Psychiatric Association, perfectionism is defined as “the tendency to demand of others, or of oneself, an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.”
But from my own experience with perfectionism, both professionally and personally, I find this definition to be somewhat limiting as it does not quite highlight the core of perfectionism – which is a deep-rooted sense of shame
The shame behind perfectionism does not stem from an action, like something you did as a child that you feel guilty (and therefore shameful) for, for example, stealing a bar of chocolate from the store. Rather, perfectionistic shame stems from a personal attribute, something about who you are.  For example, you may have been shamed for crying as a child, or you were shamed for the way your hair curled or the glasses you had to wear, or from having a parent or parents who abused alcohol, displayed extreme emotional dysregulation, or showed abusive behaviour (physical, verbal, or emotional) towards you or other family members. This shame could also have been internalised from having very critical parents, who themselves most likely struggled with perfectionism. Consequently, as a child, you would have internalised this belief about yourself that you are inadequate, unlovable, broken, and inherently flawed.
In these cases, perfectionism then serves as a shield, barrier, or mask (call it what you like), that keeps the world from seeing the shameful parts of yourself. If the world can keep looking at this perfectionistic facade, then you are safe, you are calm. However, this means you constantly have to work at keeping up the perfectionistic mask, always get things right, achieve, be first in line, exert emotional dexterity and control in all situations, and abandon all your psychological needs. Ultimately, abandoning who you truly are.  
The problem is that even though perfectionism served as a healthy coping mechanism during a time when you had to cope with perceived physical and/or emotional abandonment, over time, became toxic. It will show up as interpersonal difficulties, burnout, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, addictions, loneliness, and a loss of meaning and purpose in life. 
It is very difficult for those who get trapped in the chains of perfectionism to see it for what it is. The anxiety they experience from doing things any less than perfect is too overwhelming to endure. As a psychotherapist, and recovering perfectionist, who has walked alongside individuals on their journey to liberation from perfectionism, I’ve witnessed first-hand the pivotal moment when the scales tip. It’s when the pain of remaining the same outweighs the fear of stepping into the unknown that true transformation begins. It’s a journey back to the self, a courageous endeavour to rediscover authenticity and embrace self-compassion. Only then can perfectionism be harnessed as a tool for growth, rather than a weapon of self-destruction.
Regrettably, exacerbating the struggle against change is the modern culture we find ourselves in today. In this success-driven era, perfectionism often gets paraded around in glamorous high heels. We’re surrounded by images and stories of individuals who seem to effortlessly juggle unattainable standards while maintaining an air of flawlessness. We applaud these high achievers, idolising their relentless pursuit of perfection as something to aspire to. Yet, behind the facade of admiration lies a harsh reality. For those who grapple with perfectionism, it’s a relentless battle against oneself. It’s like watching someone dance gracefully in those high heels, unaware of the blisters forming with each step. The pressure to conform to these unrealistic ideals weighs heavy on the shoulders of perfectionists, often leaving them feeling suffocated by the very standards they strive to meet. It’s an endless internal battle of wanting to succeed yet, at the same time, feeling suffocated by it; unable to break free. 
So, what are some of the key hallmarks of harmful perfectionism? *Glad you asked!*

A need for outside validation 

Perfectionists need constant feedback from their external environment that they are doing ok, and that whatever they are doing is good enough so that they can feel good enough. For perfectionists, achievements and doing go hand-in-hand with their self-worth. They feel empty without any validation and recognition from the outside world for what they are doing. They don’t function well in environments where they don’t get frequent feedback. They need constant evidence for being enough. This can take the form of being a great athlete, an achieving academic, or the perfect partner who always attends to the emotional and physical needs of their partner. As such, perfectionism is not just a way of behaving in the world, it’s a way of being in the world. 

A relentless, harsh inner critic 

Perfectionists often carry within them the echoes of that disapproving voice, usually stemming from significant figures in their lives like parents, teachers, or caregivers. Think of a teacher who, no matter how hard you tried, always seemed to find fault in your work. Or a parent whose expectations felt like an impossible standard to meet, leaving you feeling inadequate. Or a parent who would verbally abuse you, breaking down your character and sense of self. All these instances you were made to feel (intentionally or unintentionally) that you were not good enough. These critical voices become ingrained, morphing into an inner critic that constantly reminds you of your shortcomings. The sharper and more relentless the critique from the outside world, the more ferocious and relentless this inner critic becomes, gnawing away at your self-esteem with every misstep or perceived flaw. Sadly, more often than not, these “other” figures are not even aware that this is the ripple effect of their own inner critic. This harsh inner critic also sets unobtainable standards for the self. I mean, how can you be good enough if you cannot even attain the standards you set for yourself, right?!

Tough equals worth

Perfectionists hold onto the belief that anything worth having must be hard-earned, like a trophy earned through blood, sweat, and tears. When they do achieve success, they struggle to accept it as their own doing. Instead, they dismiss it and tend to attribute it to outside factors, such as mere luck or inevitability. They tend to deny their own capabilities, skills, and talents. Picture the accomplished musician who attributes their talent to just “being born with it” and/or luck rather than recognising their years of dedication and practice. This relentless drive for perfection extends beyond their achievements and permeates every aspect of their lives. They deny themselves rest and relaxation unless they feel they’ve toiled hard enough to earn it, much like an athlete who refuses to step off the treadmill until they’ve pushed themselves to the brink of exhaustion. This mentality seeps into their diet and exercise routines as well, leading them down the treacherous path of overtraining and self-deprivation. It’s a cycle of self-punishment fuelled by the belief that nothing worthwhile comes without a struggle, leaving perfectionists perpetually chasing an unattainable standard of excellence and, ultimately, leaving them feeling burnt out – if you are a perfectionist, you are bound to experience burnout!

Intense defensiveness or anxiety around self-revelations 

Perfectionists grapple with the daunting task of unveiling their inner selves, especially to those they don’t know. The thought of baring their soul to strangers fills them with dread and discomfort. Imagine the introverted student squirming in their seat during an icebreaker activity, desperately trying to think of something to say about themselves without revealing too much. Group settings become a battleground for perfectionists, each interaction feeling like a minefield they must navigate with caution. They’ll go to great lengths to evade the inevitable “tell us something about yourself” prompt, preferring the safety of solitude over the vulnerability of sharing personal details with others. It’s not that they lack depth or substance, but rather the fear of judgment and scrutiny that keeps them guarded. For perfectionists, opening up to others fills them with overwhelming anxiety and apprehension. They would much rather eat a plate of dead flies or walk the Antarctic barefoot. 

Judgement towards others

Due to the relentless barrage of their inner critic, perfectionists often find themselves projecting their own insecurities onto others. It’s as if their own fear of inadequacy casts a shadow over every interaction, distorting their perceptions and judgments. They hold others to impossibly high standards, harshly critiquing them for traits and behaviours they cannot bear to acknowledge within themselves. For instance, they might resent a colleague who seems to effortlessly climb the corporate ladder by ingratiating themselves with superiors, unable to confront their own tendencies toward manipulation. Similarly, when confronted with someone who exudes confidence and commands attention in a room, they may hastily label them as arrogant or attention-seeking, failing to recognise their own desire for recognition and validation. In this way, perfectionists unwittingly disown parts of themselves, projecting their own internal struggles onto those around them, and perpetuating a cycle of judgment and self-denial.

External control equals internal dyscontrol 

One key characteristic of perfectionists is the need for control! Things have a place – no questions asked. They have an insatiable need for control, a relentless drive to maintain order and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world. For perfectionists, everything must adhere to a meticulously crafted plan, with no room for deviation or spontaneity. Things must be as they expect them to be. They find solace in routine and structure, clinging to the comfort of knowing exactly what to expect at every turn. Yet, when faced with emotional turmoil (e.g., emotionally overwhelmed or not feeling as they “should”), this need for control intensifies, morphing into a suffocating grip on their surroundings and themselves. They become hyper-critical, scrutinising every detail and demanding perfection from both themselves and those around them. A misplaced spoon or an unexpected change in plans can send them spiralling into a frenzy of agitation and frustration, unable to reconcile the disarray with their rigid expectations. It’s as if the world has suddenly shifted off its axis. This need for control is primarily fuelled by the fear of the world seeing “in”, noticing their shame by not being able to maintain their perfect façade.

Perfectionism really is not a badge of honour, or just a preference for having things orderly, or obsessing over details. Neither is it an ingredient for self-improvement or personal growth. In fact, perfectionism does not fuel success, it sabotages it. It does not create connection, instead, it acts as a wrecking ball, shattering the bonds of trust and intimacy that hold relationships together. It does not help progress, it hampers it by creating shackles of unobtainable standards. As stated by Sarah Egan, a researcher at Curtin University in Perth, who specialises in perfectionism, “[Perfectionism] is something that cuts across everything, in terms of psychological problems. There aren’t that many other things that do that.”

So, with all of the above in mind, if I were to define perfectionism, I would define it as a personality vulnerability that stems from an internalised sense of shame which is characterised by extremely high, often unobtainable standards or goals, that are fuelled by the fear of failure, judgement, inadequacy, blame, and rejection; accompanied by a persistent hypercritical relationship with the self.
I know that is quite a mouthful, but that is really how complex I view perfectionism to be. Yet, the question remains: how do we break free from its suffocating grasp? The answer, I’m afraid, is not a simple one. It’s a journey fraught with challenges and complexities, a topic deserving of its own dedicated article/essay/thesis! The path to liberation from perfectionism is never-ending, as it will always be looming in the background, however, moving towards a healthier relationship with it begins with a single step, a step towards self-awareness, self-compassion, and ultimately, self-acceptance.


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