Perfectionism has been linked to depression and anxiety. While many people think of perfectionism as a good thing it leads to high levels of stress. Certainly, it is a good thing to have high standards and to work hard to achieve success. However, perfectionism is the driving need to attain unreasonable or unattainable goals. Typically, perfectionists tie their self-worth with their ability to be perfect, for example, a student might think she is a failure if she gets a "B" on a test instead of an "A." Perfectionists also commonly believe that bad things will happen if they don’t achieve perfection; they blame any negative outcome on the fact that they didn’t try hard enough, they didn’t do something good enough. Living this way is stressful.
How do you know if you are a perfectionist or if you simply have high standards? The following are characteristics of perfectionists.
You have a difficult time accepting being "second best" in any endeavor, even those you aren’t really interested in. You are highly competitive and can’t stand to lose…at anything.
You might avoid any activities or tasks when you know you won’t be the best, for example, suppose you are a great basketball player but only mediocre at baseball. You refuse to play baseball, even in a casual environment, because you aren’t the best on the team.
You would rather give up on a task than not do it perfectly. If you get to a meeting late, you don’t go in. If you don’t think your report is perfect, you don’t bother handing it in. If you can’t do it perfectly, you don’t bother wasting your time trying.
You sacrifice your own well being to make something perfect. You might skip eating or sleeping so you can continue to work on a project because it isn’t perfect yet.
You believe that there is a "right" and "wrong" way to do most things. You don’t see that there might be several different ways to achieve the same end.
You don’t accept in-betweens. Everything is either perfect or it is a failure. You don’t believe that anything can be "okay." If you have not achieved perfection, you have failed. There are no grey areas in your life, only black and white.
You are highly critical of mistakes. You might be extremely detail oriented, because not only must the final project be correct but every detail along the way must be perfect as well. You notice any mistake or error, whether you made it or someone else did.
You obsess about previous mistakes, mulling over what you did and did not do correctly. You worry that you did not do enough or did something wrong.
You become defensive if anyone points out any errors or makes any criticisms about your work because it implies that you were not or are not perfect.
You are a "people pleaser." You want everyone to think highly of you and be happy with what you have accomplished or done. You become stressed if someone is not pleased with your work.
You are judgmental and critical of others. You want perfection not only in what you do but in everything around you. You quickly criticize any errors made by those around you.
You have a difficult time emotionally connecting with other people. Because you have an intense need to be accepted and a great fear of rejection, you might find it easier to not connect and therefore not risk rejection.
You know achieving perfection is impossible and you know that your efforts to do so are harmful to you. Even so, you can’t seem to stop yourself because the results would be disasterous. You can’t imagine living with yourself if you don’t try to be perfect and you are sure that your world will fall apart if you stop trying.
You take it hard, very hard, when you don’t achieve perfection. Because perfection is so important to you, you find it very hard to deal with anything less. When faced with challenges or mistakes you have made, you become dejected.
You continue working on a project long past when it was complete or others would have stopped. That’s because no matter how long you work, in your eyes it is never quite done. There is always one more edit, one more change, one more finishing touch. You believe you will stop when it is "perfect."
You feel relieved when someone else fails. Although you know you shouldn’t, seeing someone else make a mistake or fail at a task makes you feel better, at least for a little while. It reinforces that you are "the best."
You find it very difficult if other people see you make a mistake. You might overreact by crying, yelling, screaming or making excuses for your mistake.
You think asking for help is a sign of weakness. You believe that if you can’t do it all, then you can’t be perfect and that isn’t acceptable.
You do only things that have a purpose. You don’t enjoy doing pointless hobbies. Instead, everything you do has a purpose in your life.
You have a need to be in control. If working on a group project, you automatically take the lead and decide what tasks everyone else will complete. You take on extra work to make sure it is done right. You believe in "if you want it done right, do it yourself." You have a difficult time working in a group if you are not in control.
Having some of these traits doesn’t mean you are a perfectionist, however, if you see yourself in several or many of these characteristics you might be a perfectionist. There are ways to overcome perfectionism and start to enjoy your life and the relationships around you. Cognitive behavioral therapists work to help you find ways to change your thinking patterns and focus more on the positive aspects of your life and relationships.
"The Many Faces of Perfectionism," 2003. Etienne Benson, American Psychological Association
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.