When I tell people I work with perfectionists, often times I am met with either a startled look on their face as if they know I'm talking about them, or genuine curiosity from people who think they might be a perfectionist. The reality is, perfectionism exists on spectrum with varying degrees and flavors for each individual. Perfectionism is going to look and feel different for each person. On some level and in different scenarios, we may all exhibit some form of perfectionistic tendencies.
Dictionary.com defines perfectionism as: a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.
Brene Brown's definition of perfectionism is my favorite because it encapsulates perfectionism at its core, "Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame."
When I work with a client, I keep Brene Brown's definition in mind and also focus on a set of characteristics I typically see in clients with perfectionism. As you read through the list, think about which characteristics below show up in your life.
High expectations: I was recently asked what I work on the most with my clients. Without hesitation I said, expectations. Perfectionists have high expectations for themselves and often times, others. The expectations perfectionists set can be unrealistic, and even if they are achievable, the pursuit of fulfilling their expectations can come at a high cost (i.e. stress, anxiety, depression, isolation, criticism, irritability, strained relationships, etc). And if the expectations are not met, a great deal of distress can follow. In my work, I explore how my clients' expectations developed and what they think meeting their expectations will give them, such as happiness and fulfillment. Having a deep understanding of where one's expectations originate from can be the key to freeing oneself from living a restricted life.
All or nothing thinking: It is common for perfectionists to think in extremes, or rather, all or nothing thinking. Perfectionists tend to think in absolutes, either they are a success or a failure. They are either attractive or unattractive. It's this black or white thinking that leaves very little room for flexibility, expansion, and opportunities for growth. For more, click here to read my blog on all or nothing thinking.
Fear of failure: Expectations and all or nothing thinking are often tightly intertwined with fear of failure. Perfectionists tend to focus on what they don't want to happen. If they achieve an outcome they've been trying to avoid, they tend to see themselves as failures. The problem is, when we focus on our fears, we miss opportunities to learn from our perceived setbacks. For more, click here to read my article on fear vs passion.
Overly Critical: Perfectionists tend to be very self-critical which often bleeds over in their relationships. It's rare to be compassionate in one area of life, but not in others, so perfectionists tend to lack compassion all around. Perfectionists often repeat critical voices they've heard from their past and often times are never taught how to self-soothe or how to speak with a compassionate voice. My clients tend to believe having a critical voice will actually motivate them but they soon realize, their critical voice actually does the opposite. In the end, negative self-talk actually causes more stress and hinders motivation.
Indecisiveness: Perfectionists are plagued by wanting to make the "right" decision, this can result in procrastination or avoidance due to their fear of making the "wrong" decision. Fear of failing and fear of making the "wrong" decision, or being overly concerned with what others think, fuels indecisiveness.
Praise from others: In my article, "3 types of perfectionist, which one are you?" One type of perfectionist I discuss are socially prescribed perfectionists. These perfectionists are motivated by approval of others. Socially prescribed perfectionists long for praise and validation from others in order to feel worthy. Because the desire to receive praise from others is so deep, perfectionists are also often people pleasers. When someone is solely motivated by the praise and validation they receive from others, they lose sight of their own needs and desires in lieu of praise from others.
Do more syndrome: When life isn't going according to plan, perfectionists often turn the finger inward and wonder what more they can do or how they can change to make a situation better. Doing more and adding to the never ending to do list is usually not the solution, but doing less is. Hearing "do less" to a perfectionist can sound impossible but it is just the prescription needed in order to achieve mental clarity.
These are some of the most common characteristics I see in people with perfectionism, and yet, perfectionism exists on a continuum. On some level we are all trying to hide our flaws, doing our best to put our best face forward, and are more concerned about what others think than we want to be. As Brene Brown states in Daring Greatly, in order to find freedom from perfectionism, we need to pivot from "what will they think?" to "I am good enough." We achieve this freedom from enlisting shame resilience, self-compassion, and owning our story.
If you are ready to free yourself from perfectionism, click the button below to schedule your free mini session today!