Everybody tells me I am a perfectionist. Is that a problem?
In my private practice, I have seen several clients that struggle with perfectionist and the pressure they put on themselves to achieve perfection. When it is extreme, it can definitely impact negatively one’s mental health and self-esteem. But what is it and how can you know if it became something to address? Let’s see some signs and symptoms of perfectionism how what you can do to help yourself.
I usually describe perfectionism as the constant need to do things right, by setting a high and rigid standard for yourself. When you aim for perfection, and as perfection is not possible, someone that struggles with perfectionism is setting themselves for failure, and therefore will need to deal with frustration and disappointment. Never satisfied with their own performance and outcomes, negative emotions can arise, such as guilty and shame. And with it, behaviours are impacted in a negative fashion. I have seen perfectionists that tend to hide themselves, avoid certain tasks and projects and engage in negative core beliefs about their competences. Once it gets to this point, it is possible that the individual starts to suffer from anxiety and to engage in thoughts about not being good enough. A perfectionist is, thus, never satisfied with their own performance.
It is important to understand that trying to do your better is not the same as being a perfectionist, although some characteristics can overlap, such as: being attentive to details and meticulous, trying to exceed expectations and so on. Those are skills valued in different professions and can help one thrive in their career. Perfectionist individuals can achieve results beyond (others’) expectations and surprise them with great achievements, helping, though, in a professional or academic environment.
When does this trait become a problem? Perfectionism can harm oneself in a wide variety of ways, impacting the mental health and emotional state. Once one has unreasonably expectations placed on themselves, and when reality is proven differently, there is a space in between those two called frustration. If the reality is proven to be extremely different from what the perfectionist hopes for, the amount of disappointment can eventually become too big to deal with. Therefore depression, anxiety, sleeping disorders might arise, combined with worry thoughts and ruminations. The effort to be perfect in different areas of your life can be very exhausting, right? It is not uncommon for perfectionists to get stuck on how things ‘should be’ as opposed to how things actually are. This ongoing seek for being ‘the best’ does not take into consideration our limits and takes our mind from appreciating the journey and over focus on the results. Although it is rewarding to make a project happen or a dream come true, the process of learning and growing (and of getting satisfaction out of it) is what makes life joyful. Perfectionists don’t think so. They can strive to be perfect at all costs and can cross the boundaries to make it happen. And when things do not go as expected (oftentimes), the tendency to punish themselves and to confirm negative core beliefs (such as “I am not good enough”) get stronger. With those thoughts in mind, it is common to feel desperate, stressed or even depressed. There are a few facts that are worth it mentioning about perfectionism. If you see yourself engaging in some of them, it might be the right moment to assess your thoughts and behaviours and to start shifting your perspective about yourself. Burnout One possible problem with perfectionism can be emotional exhaustion. Some individuals that engage in ongoing search for perfectionism do not live life as it is, tends to escape from the present and play a role. There is an underlining fear of not living up to one’s expectations and being criticized for their failures.The image that they want to convey is of someone that does not make mistakes, is extremely efficient and can push away personal needs to achieve a higher goal. At some point, the stress of hiding the imperfections may become too intense, therefore taking the person to their limits. Procrastinating:It is not uncommon to perfectionists to procrastinate more than average. And the rational for it is the fact that those individuals tend to engage in thinking that “there is no point trying to do something that I cannot do well”. Therefore, they tend to struggle with the Imposter Syndrome, engaging in self-doubt in such an extreme that it overrides the feeling of success that can come from executing a project, or having proof of competence. As a consequence, they may fail to pursue their dreams due to the simple fact that they are scared of trying.
Lack of joy in the daily life:
It is about time to reflect on your thoughts and how they are impacting your emotions. And when emotions are too strong to handle, it is possible that people look for unhealthy ways to regulate them, which can eventually become a problem. Dissatisfaction can make people engage in external and immediate ways to get some pleasure, such as compulsive shopping, increase alcohol intake, and parties. And when/if those activities become no longer a source of pleasure, mental health concerns arise.
How to overcome perfectionism:
To deal with the need to be perfect, it might be necessary to work on lowering the expectations you have on yourself, by reframing the thoughts that might be triggering some of your behaviours. Working on accepting that we all make mistakes and using humour to deal with it might be a good start. If you give some of the kindness that you probably address to others to yourself, you might start to see a difference. As we tend to react more to our thoughts than to facts, pay special attention to what is surround you and do not engage on those negative self-talks that may arise when you feel you are not good enough. Some of my client report that once they deal with this trait in their lives, it can be very liberating. In sum, it is about giving yourself permission to be who you are, to make mistakes, and to connect with others accepting yourself and understanding that you are loveable for being you!