What if I told you there’s a chance you could be a perfectionist without even realising?
Perfectionism can show up in many different ways, some more obvious than others. Many of my clients seek therapy knowing full well they’re perfectionists. It’s exactly what they want to work on, because let’s face it, being a perfectionist is EXHAUSTING. But some of my clients come to me for help with something else like anxiety, low self-esteem or burnout. It’s not until we’ve started working together that they realise ‘OMG this is called perfectionism, I’m a perfectionist?!’.
I always welcome this light bulb moment because I know how important it is to recognise perfectionism and be honest about how it’s affecting our behaviour. Left unchecked, it can have a negative impact on our wellbeing. It’s also a common factor in a number of mental health problems including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). So, what are the hidden signs of perfectionism and why are they so hard to spot?
Some experts believe perfectionism isn’t something people either have or don’t have. Instead, it could be something we all experience to varying degrees. If you’ve been thinking and behaving in a particular way for a long time, it becomes your normal. The fact we tend to celebrate the positive aspects of perfectionism (such as attention to detail and striving for achievement) also adds to the confusion.
Perfectionism can be hard to spot because it shows up in lots of different ways. Self-criticism, people pleasing, imposter syndrome, burnout… the list goes on. It’s not until we start connecting the dots that a pattern of perfectionism begins to emerge.
Some perfectionists don’t recognise their perfectionism because they feel so imperfect. While focussing on their own perceived flaws and failings, they imagine perfectionists to be super organised, well put together high achievers. Psychotherapist Sharon Martin explains what’s missing from this view:
‘Perfectionism isn’t simply about trying to be perfect. Perfectionism is a symptom of low self-worth. It reflects an internal belief that you’re not good enough, that you’re not as smart, funny, or sexy as everyone else. And this belief pushes many perfectionists to excel. But other perfectionists are almost paralyzed by it, unable to take action or make decisions out of fear that doing so will confirm their inferiority. But no matter which type of perfectionist you are, you don’t think you’re inherently worthy, so you constantly need to prove your worth.’Live Well with Sharon Martin
Perfectionists often engage in approach or avoidance behaviours. Approach behaviours are more active (e.g. excessive checking and list making) while avoidance behaviours are less active things like procrastination and giving up. It’s also possible to experience both. When people talk about self-sabotage, it’s often these learned perfectionist behaviours that are keeping them stuck in a vicious cycle.
Here are a few things to look out for:
Sound familiar? Wondering what to do next? You may find the following links helpful:
If you’re looking for a therapist, please get in touch. I also share support, advice and ideas for recovering perfectionists on my Instagram page, the.perfectionism.therapist, and via my fortnightly newsletter, Perfectly Imperfect.