There are many aspects of life in which you can strive to be at your best. The best employee, the best friend, the best partner, the best parent; not to mention doing all this while also maintaining your best health, best appearance, and the ever prominent idea of “living your best life.” Setting high standards and striving for big accomplishments is in itself not a bad thing.
If you consider yourself as a perfectionist or identify as having perfectionist tendencies in any way, it’s probably easy to recognize how perfectionism has helped you be successful in the past. You can also probably remember how these accomplishments were rewarded and validated by others, and how good it felt to receive that recognition.
Perfectionism is an issue that is a bit different from other mental health issues because oftentimes people (and society as a whole) value it. Despite this, maybe you’ve started to notice that the weight of expectations are starting to take a toll on your happiness, health, relationships or even- ironically- on your ability to accomplish things. Here are some signs to look for when determining if your perfectionism has crossed into the territory of being unhelpful or unproductive:
You never feel like you’re getting it right or doing enough
There’s a difference between high standards and impossible standards, but that distinction can be hard for a perfectionist to pick up on. Performance- how well or not well you are measuring up- can feel like everything to a perfectionist. The problem is that perfectionists tend to have highly rigid ideas surrounding performance, as well as highly critical evaluations of yourselves.
No matter how intensely you invest in your goals, perfectionists rarely feel satisfied or fulfilled by your achievements. This can lead to a vicious cycle in which perfectionists continually raise the bar of your own standards in order to seek those ever-elusive feelings of adequacy and competency.
The better you do, the better you expect yourself to do, and your expectations just continue to get more and more unrealistic as time goes on. It’s common for a perfectionist to feel defeated, demoralized and powerless to break this cycle.
You have difficulty identifying strengths and victories
As a perfectionist, you might lay in bed at night ruminating about the one thing you didn’t get done rather than reflecting on the ten things you did get done. More often than not, this process isn’t even a conscious effort- a perfectionist’s brain on autopilot tends to selectively filter for problems, errors and flaws.
Taken to the extreme, perfectionists may regard anything less than 100% perfection as a complete failure. Fixating too intensely on the negative may begin to paint a bleak (and unrealistic) picture of your ability or worth, and consequently take a toll on your self-esteem.
As you reflect upon your endeavors, do you consider definitions of success that are not directly related to the end result? Are you able to celebrate taking risks and developing new skills, or feel good about helping others during the process? If not, perfectionism may be the thing that’s getting in the way.
You’re not experiencing any joy in the things you’re doing
It can be helpful to consider your motivations and what perpetuates perfectionistic tendencies when comparing healthy versus unhealthy drive for achievement. With a healthier perspective, an individual is pulled towards their goals by a desire to achieve them. In short, you want to feel MORE of a positive thing (excited, energized, proud).
Conversely, unhealthy perfectionism can oftentimes feel like being pushed by the fear of not meeting a goal. In this scenario, an individual is fueled by the desire to feel LESS of a negative thing (judgment, anxiety, shame). Perfectionistic behaviors can inadvertently develop as a tool to protect yourself from a wide array of uncomfortable feelings. Of course, there is the possibility you might be motivated in part by both, but if you are feeling more of the latter that might be an indication that your perfectionism has become damaging.
You don’t feel deeply connected to others
Many self-identified perfectionists lack a sense of real authenticity in your relationships, or might describe your relationships as feeling “performative” in nature. You may have a lot of acquaintances, but at a deeper level feel like you’re missing out on the intimacy you crave.
We all have a fundamental need to feel accepted and cared for, but it’s much harder for a perfectionist to trust that you can still be valued even when you are not perfect. Meaningful human connection almost always requires at least some level of vulnerability, which is at odds with a perfectionist’s desire to avoid situations in which you might be perceived as imperfect.
When concerns about how you will be judged by others gets in the way of showing up authentically in your relationships, you might not feel truly seen or understood by others- an experience that can be very isolating.
Striving for perfection can be dangerous if left unchecked. If any of these four perfectionism drawbacks resonate with you, it might be a good time to reevaluate whether your perfectionism is really serving you. If you’re interested in learning about how Catalyss Counseling can help you overcome your perfectionism, check out our Recovering Perfectionist Group where you can connect and learn from others just like you.
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Here at Catalyss Counseling, we want to meet all of your counseling needs in the Denver area. Our supportive therapists provide depression counseling, therapy for caregiver stress, grief and loss therapy, stress management counseling and more. We also have specialists in trauma and PTSD, women's issues, pregnancy and postpartum depression or anxiety, pregnancy loss and miscarriage, and birth trauma. For therapists, we can also provide clinical supervision! We look forward to connecting with you to help support your journey today.
Dylan Mackie Hernandez specializes in treating those who are more analytical in their thinking patterns, and tend to be highly logical, intelligent, and high-achieving. She believes that change is most sustainable when treatment is tailored to maximize confidence and autonomy both in and out of therapy sessions. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.