Perfectionism is one the most widespread set of tendencies people suffer from. Here are some of more common perfectionistic traits that you may recognize in yourself or people you know.
Four Common Perfectionistic Tendencies
1. Fear of making mistakes
You are terrified of not knowing something, of not being able to perform optimally, or of making a mistake. Usually this type of fear or anxiety is more prevalent in a public setting where there is a risk of being perceived as flawed by others.
Instead of mistakes being part of the learning process to gaining new skills, insight or knowledge, they learned that making a mistake equals being morally bad. And being bad in the past resulted in active or passive punishment. Understandably, then, making a mistake triggers a strong emotional reaction and leads to certain, often unwanted, behavioral response.
To cope with it, some people swing from one psychoemotional extremum to another. On one side, there’s feeling terribly guilty, ashamed, and overly responsible (“everything is my fault,” “I am completely worthless”), and on the other, there’s denial of any responsibility, placing blame on others, or misrepresenting themselves as having no flaws (“everything is someone else’s fault,” “I’m always right”).
Others just stay stuck on one pole and become either completely self-blaming and self-attacking (what is traditionally referred to as low self-esteem), or narcissistic and otherwise grandiose (inflated self-esteem, which simply is a different form of low self-esteem). Both are realistically inaccurate.
2. Overthinking and difficulties making decisions
You are constantly living in your head, where you ruminate about your past actions, fret about the future, and generally try to solve all the possible and impossible scenarios. This often results in indecisiveness, passivity, and poor productivity.
It is also closely related to the first tendency because the person is usually afraid to make a decision in fear of what will happen if they choose or have chosen suboptimally. So they spend a lot of time overthinking. This creates problems focusing and concentrating on the task at hand because their mind is jumping from one thought to another, is obsessively spinning between the same thoughts, or goes blank to manage all this anxiety and to get some rest from all of this mental noise.
Sometimes it manifests itself in such seemingly absurd situations where the person is at a supermarket and can’t make up their mind for 15 minutes about which orange to pick because they “need” to pick the best one. It paralyzes action to the person’s own detriment.
3. All or nothing
You are prone to think only in black and white terms. This tendency is especially problematic in a work environment because you may suffer from workaholism, or you may not be able to finish projects if you feel that it is not good enough. For example, you may keep trying to improve your project but never feel satisfied with it, and eventually you may throw it out altogether and start anew.
This may also get in the way of enjoying life and feeling relaxed because you may always find something to worry about or be dissatisfied with. And when you solve that, some new dissatisfaction comes up—so you never feel that things are okay, you never feel good in the moment because you worry or feel upset about something that is not ideal.
For instance, if your day went okay but then a small inconvenience came up, you may write off the whole day as being bad. Or you don’t want to try new things and tend to abandon them quickly because you are not an expert at it immediately.
From a social standpoint, you may see others—and yourself—as all good or all bad, flawless or rotten, a friend or an enemy. Here, a person who sees the world in such terms is missing all the nuance and subtleties that comes with being a human being.
4. SHOULDs and have TOs
People with perfectionistic tendencies live in a world of SHOULDs and HAVE TOs. Instead of saying, “I want to do this,” or, “I choose to do that,” they say, “I should to do this,” or “I have to do that.”
It manifests itself both in a person’s internal dialogue and in relation to others. In a relationship with yourself, it creates a very controlling environment where you harshly order yourself around and attack yourself for making mistakes or being inefficient.
In relation to others and the world, oftentimes such a person has a very strong belief that things should be a certain way or that everyone else should act, feel, and think a certain way. If reality doesn’t match what they think it should be, they feel upset and can’t accept it.
Usually, it results in excessively trying to change others and in general being overly concentrated on and overly concerned with other people. The feedback they provide others is unhelpful. Some people suffering from it have a really poor sense of boundaries and have no problem imposing themselves onto others (bullying, stalking, provoking, being overly critical, vilifying, manipulating, sabotaging) or otherwise invading other people’s mental or even physical space.
Without self-work, self-understanding, and self-compassion, the cycle will likely repeat itself unbeknownst to the people involved. Recognizing what perfectionism is and the forms it may take is a good step towards breaking the cycle.
Do you recognize any of these traits in yourself? What is or was the hardest thing for you about it? What did you find helpful in overcoming it? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or write about it in your journal.
Photo by schnappischnap
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.