Perfectionism (or the need to be or be seen to be perfect) is often held up as a positive character trait that encourages you to push yourself to perform well. Many people will say “what’s wrong with striving to be perfect? Isn’t having extremely high expectations a good thing?” However, it can also lead to negative thought patterns associated with poor mental health.
Individuals who desire perfection are almost always falling short because ‘perfect’ is never attainable all of the time. No-one can be perfect all of the time. However, this can cause the perfectionist individual to feel like a failure or to feel inadequate. While there is nothing wrong with challenging yourself to do your best, it becomes a problem when it affects your daily functioning, like not submitting work because it doesn’t feel good enough and missing deadlines. Or working all night to complete something that should only take a short time. Others decide not to try at all to avoid being evaluated. The inner critic that constantly barks “not good enough, work harder” can cause real distress and anxiety and damage your view of your self and your quality of life.
The problem can be exacerbated because when people with perfectionist tendencies meet their standards, they tend to raise them further so they are more out of reach. This means they can never truly live up to their own standards
How you can help yourself
Reframing your expectations can be challenging but working with a counsellor you can slowly become more flexible in your way of thinking to be more realistic. For example, getting an A- on a test might feel like a terrible failure to someone pushing for an A+ but when you look at it from another angle, its realistically a good grade and maybe puts you in the top 10% of your class. Writing out your thoughts about what you see as a ‘failure’ and answering them with more realistic responses can help you look more flexibility at your situation as a whole. You can hold two different and valid opinions at once like “I did my best I know I could do better” – they are not mutually exclusive. This can take some of the sting out of that inner critic and help you start to look at your achievements more rationally.
Often perfectionists work so hard to achieve that they don’t take time to enjoy their accomplishments. They are looking so hard at the top of the mountain (their goal) that they don’t stop and look around and see how far they’ve climbed already. This is a new way of approaching achievement – looking at progress rather than outcomes. So instead of focussing on “I only ran 5k today and it was too slow” it would be looking back at how far you’ve come with your running and thinking back to the time you couldn’t run that far at all.
The positives of perfect
It’s thought that some perfectionism can be useful and adaptive, and other types are unhelpful. “Striving for excellence” is a healthy and more flexible way of living your life. If you find yourself being consistently self-critical and having rigid unattainable goals, it may be a sign that your perfectionism is disrupting your life. Striving for excellence also allows you to take risks whilst being willing to fail and learn from that experience. This is a healthier way of pushing yourself to do better and builds confidence rather than damaging your self esteem.
If you feel you need some help with your perfectionist tendencies, it’s worth talking it through with a counsellor who can help you to develop a more flexible way of thinking and evaluating in your life.