Are you a perfectionist? And so what if you are? Being a perfectionist is a good thing, right? It implies high standards, hard work and attention to detail. As a human, I want to agree. ‘Sure, there are plenty of benefits to being a perfectionist,’ I’d say. But as a CBT Therapist, I know this isn’t really the case. Having supported clients and worked on my own perfectionism, I’ve come to realise the cons usually outweigh the pros.
When I was younger, I thought my perfectionism was a positive personality trait. It helped me work hard and achieve excellent grades. What’s not to love? In reality, all it did was keep me stuck in a vicious cycle where my self-worth was tied to what I achieved.
This is a dangerous game to play. It meant I’d either fail to meet my standards and fall into self-criticism, or I’d meet them but then decide the original standards weren’t demanding enough. Cue anxiety and overwhelm.
It wasn’t until I found mindfulness and therapy that I realised perfectionism wasn’t my friend and I could live a much happier life without it. I was also pleased and relieved to learn I could still have high standards, but without all the perfectionist baggage. Win win!
I’ll share more about overcoming perfectionism in future posts. For now, we’ll focus on my original question – are you a perfectionist? Let’s start with a clear definition…
Perfectionism includes ‘perfectionistic concerns’ and ‘perfectionistic strivings’. Perfectionistic strivings are things like striving for achievement and can be linked to positive outcomes such as self-efficacy. Perfectionistic concerns are things like self-criticism and are associated with anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
These two distinct categories reveal the difference between true perfectionists and high achievers. When we focus on the positive aspects of being a perfectionist, we’re usually thinking about the latter.
Rather than simply working hard to achieve their goals, perfectionists strive for flawlessness. They fixate on their imperfections, attempt to control situations, and can be highly critical of themselves and others. As a result, they tend to achieve less and stress more than high achievers.
A perfectionist is also someone who:
In her work on perfectionism, Professor Roz Shafran outlines five types of perfectionists. These are:
1. The Driven Academic Achiever - someone who must always achieve 100% without fail.
2. The Risk Evader — someone who exhibits an all-or-nothing approach and lacks the confidence to try new things.
3. The Aggravated Accuracy Assessor — someone who must achieve exactness and is fixated on the ‘re-dos’.
4. The Controlling Image Manager — someone who wants to be and be seen as perfect.
5. The Procrastinating Perfectionist — someone who is paralysed by fears and self-doubts that impair their ability to start or finish work.
In the past, I definitely bounced between both number one and number three. Oh, the joys of perfectionism!
A few things to look out for:
You should also keep an eye out for some tell-tale cognitive biases. Cognitive biases, or ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ as I like to call them, are ways our thoughts can become negatively biased. They happen automatically, often without our awareness, but can have a huge impact on how we feel. In turn, this can affect what we do, or what we don’t do. The most common ones I see in my perfectionist clients are ‘shoulds and musts’ and ‘black and white thinking’. Things like ‘I should always get 100%’, ‘I must never fail’ and ‘if it’s not perfect, then it’s rubbish.’
I regularly share support, advice and ideas for recovering perfectionists on my Instagram page, the.perfectionism.therapist, and I also send out my fortnightly newsletter, Perfectly Imperfect. You can also listen to me talk about perfectionism on the Ask the Therapist podcast hosted by Sarah D Rees.