Perfectionism isn’t a disorder in itself, but it’s something we see as a trait across various conditions including anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and stress. Someone who’s a perfectionist feels the things they do need to be flawless or faultless, and believes that anything less isn’t acceptable.
This can lead them to avoid the activity altogether, or to put it off, or to do it and feel stressed. Procrastination is often due to the perfectionist predicting that they won’t be ‘good enough’, or dreading the amount of hard work necessary to reach their own high standards. Some people will wear themselves out by over-preparing, or constantly making and reviewing lists. Fear of failure, or believing ‘if I can’t do it perfectly it’s not worth bothering’, might stop people doing things they would enjoy.
Perfectionism has close links with OCD: someone might be compelled to do something – cleaning a floor, for example – until it feels ‘right’. A perfectionist who has social anxiety may strive for the perfect conversation, then review the event and worry about how they came across afterwards.
We’re probably all aware of how perfectionism can manifest on the outside, such as someone neatly lining up everything on their desk, or cleaning their home until it’s immaculate. It’s the unseen aspects that are the key to managing it, however.
The link between perfectionism and self-esteem Someone with perfectionism will set extremely high – often unrealistic – standards for themselves, and their self-esteem will be closely bound up with achieving these. For example, ‘I’m only good enough if I get top results at work, all the time’, or ‘I’m only a good friend if I’m in touch with and supporting everyone, all the time’.
Perfectionists need the affirmation that comes from knowing they’ve done something well, or receiving feedback from others, to keep their self-worth topped up. If they don’t achieve this, they feel they’ve failed. If they do, the ‘high’ of satisfaction is often short lived. People often need to raise the standard – for instance thinking ‘I went running three times this week, so I should go for four next week’.
If you’re a perfectionist, and the trait is affecting your day-to-day life and wellbeing, you can try to reduce how much your self-esteem depends on always achieving the best.
Deciding to change Chances are there are times when your perfectionist tendencies will have helped you to progress in your career, or cause others to think highly of you. This may make it hard to let go! Make a list of the pros and cons of perfectionism, considering the different areas you exhibit the trait in. For example, ‘Carefully reviewing every email three times before sending it makes me look polished and professional. However, it also means I work longer hours, and this makes me stressed’. Ask yourself: do you want to change this?
Becoming more self-compassionate Be aware of your self-critical inner voice – the one that says, for instance, ‘I’m not good enough because I made a mistake’. Does this voice help you in any way, or not? Would you speak to someone else like this? We’re often much more compassionate, kind and constructive with others than ourselves. When your self-critical voice pipes up, try writing down what you’d say to a friend, and say it to yourself: ‘OK, you made a mistake, but you’re human and everyone does it. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure.’
This will take time, especially if that voice is loud! It might help to gather your favourite self-compassionate statements and practice saying them to yourself regularly.
Questioning the ‘shoulds’ If the word ‘should’ pops up, this signals a belief about the standards you’ve set for yourself, or you’ve learnt from others. These are often rigid, and all-or-nothing in nature. Practising self-compassion, try turning the rule you’ve made into a guideline instead. ‘I should clean the house from top to bottom before a visitor comes’ might become ‘I will aim to clean the house before a visitor comes, but if I miss a room that’s OK’.
Challenge the beliefs you have. For instance, someone who believes ‘I should check my emails three times to make sure they’re worded perfectly’ could test this one day by deciding to review their emails once before sending, then ask themselves if anything different happened. Did they make a mistake? Was there any comeback? Were they more productive and less stressed?
Finding a better balance We all need a mix of activities in our lives to feel happy and fulfilled:
- those that give us pleasure
- those that are routine – such as work and household chores, and
- those that are necessary – like paying bills or getting the car serviced. We can experience problems if there are any areas we’re not devoting enough time to. Exercise self-compassion by giving yourself permission to do the activities that are relaxing and enjoyable, not just those linked to achievement.
If your perfectionism is leading to anxiety or low mood, or interfering with your ability to function day-to-day, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help. Find out more about CBT here.