What it’s really like to be a Perfectionist

by Tatiana Bicknell, LMSW | Aug 2023

On the outside, a perfectionist can seem like they have it all figured out. It looks like we are striving for excellence, always motivated, ready to make improvements, and successful. What is so bad about that? Isn’t this what employers look for in a “perfect” candidate? Isn’t it what teachers typically name “the perfect student”? On the outside, these seem like great qualities to have so why would we think the person with those qualities could be struggling?

Being a perfectionist can be exhausting. Putting so much time into just one task that could have been done in half the time, just because we need it to be perfect.  Never feeling good enough harms our self-esteem and self-worth. Some may feel that their perfectionism is a benefit to them, even if it creates stress. Feeling in control can be addictive and hard to let go of.  Perfectionistic behaviors can decrease our mental health and individuals are at risk for anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders and substance-abuse disorders. Let’s look at the hidden challenges of a perfectionist:

All-or-Nothing thinking

Perfectionists struggle to see the inbetween; it’s either I’m going to get an A on this assignment or I failed, or I don’t excel in every task at work so I’m the worst at my job. This type of thinking pattern can make us feel like we are not good enough or can do anything right, leading to procrastination.The thought of possibly failing at something will hold us back from doing something we aren’t confident in. We will either keep avoiding it until we can’t anymore, or completely not do it at all and feel more like a failure later.

Self-destruction and Low Self-Esteem

The LAST thing a perfectionist wants is to do something wrong, fail, feel judged, blamed, and shame.  We will want to control everything we can to avoid these feelings at all costs. In reality, we can’t control everything.  Perfectionists hold themselves to very unrealistic, high standards and are their biggest critics.  We are very goal driven and feel great if that goal is met. With having unrealistic goals, negative self-talk increases and self-esteem decreases.

Acceptance from Others

Another part of why we put so much pressure into ourselves is for acceptance. We were often told growing up that anything less than perfect isn’t acceptable, and told to “try harder” even when we are doing our best.  We typically weren’t acknowledged for achievements or positive things we did unless it lived up to our parent’s expectations. As we get older, it’s harder to believe others when we receive good remarks because we learned to keep our standards high. Having a history of high achievements can also create perfectionist behaviors. The pressure of those high achievements can make us feel we need to continue achieving and not achieve less than before. This can even create high expectations from family and friends, furthering the need for acceptance.

Conflict in Relationships

Some of us learned our perfectionist ways from parents with the same behaviors. We typically hold ourselves to high standards, however this can also project onto our partners, family members and friends. It’s hard to trust that others will get things done perfectly or how we expect it. Therefore, we will either do it ourselves or continuously watch over the person and pick out everything they are doing wrong. This can have others feeling criticized and overwhelmed, leading to conflicts in the relationship.

Overcoming perfectionism is a challenge and it’s possible. There are healthier, less stressful ways to set goals and be successful without working off of fear and the need for acceptance from others. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is a great way to begin challenging all-or-nothing thinking patterns and increasing positive and/or neutral self-talk. Working with a therapist will ensure that you have guidance and support during this difficult change. Parents can also help in preventing perfectionism in their children by having realistic expectations, acknowledging and praising them for doing their best, accepting mistakes and providing support.

By Tatiana Bicknell, LMSW