Updated: Sep 26, 2020
Perfectionism. Many will throw this word around in an interview as a humble brag when asked about their biggest flaw. How do I know this? Because I am SUPER guilty of doing this in the past and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this boasted about in the interviews I’ve conducted for sales positions.
To be clear, I am a recovering perfectionist myself. While this article is nowhere near perfect (which I'm viewing as progress on my end!), I hope you will find the research I've done helpful in your journey to become a recovering perfectionist.
I've spent hours reading books, listening to podcasts, and even meeting with therapists to work through and gather information on this mental barrier. It's changed my life for the better and I hope you will find some takeaways to help you better manage yours as well. Let's get into it!
Why is perfectionism bad?
First of all, not ALL perfectionism is bad. In fact, psychologists have broken up perfectionism into two types: adaptive and maladaptive. In short, adaptive perfectionists allow this trait to express in a healthy way; they set clear boundaries for themselves and do not allow perfectionism to get in the way of their progress. They are also the minority.
Maladaptive perfectionists are the people we will be focusing on in this post (I'll just refer to them as perfectionists to keep it short). These are the perfectionists that can't help but express their compulsive need to sabotage their success as they attempt to reach the impossible—perfection.
Most perfectionists have a strong need to make everything around them perfect so they can hide their shame about not being perfect people. They see themselves as the mistake and spend their lives looking externally to correct this perceived issue instead of allowing themselves to heal internally.
Perfectionism is also a symptom of a fixed mindset—meaning a person's identity is predetermined by genetics and cannot be improved with experience (IQ, athletic ability, etc.). Therefore, perfectionists need validation of intellect, skill, abilities to protect their identity. It is too terrifying for them to consider not being naturally gifted at something... when they have a fixed mindset.
To that end, perfectionists will often give up on something quickly if "they're not good at it" immediately. This helps them cope with the fixed mindset beliefs and protect their concept of self. It is easier to accept that you're not naturally good at something than it is to keep going after it and failing.....when you have this mindset. This leads to fewer and fewer women willing to take risks to start new things that challenge them (new companies, products, policies, etc.).
As this negative belief system intensifies, they begin to physically manifest this shame as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, or even physical pain. See the issue? Perfectionism not just a cute "flaw", it is an epidemic that is impacting the mental health of all generations.
Who does this affect the most?
Women. I'm so passionate about disrupting the perfectionist mentality because I believe it is holding a lot of women back from their true potential. A world with true gender equality will require women to break down our mental barriers that society has given us and step into our greatness. Until we release perfectionism and fixed mindsets, we won't have the courage to truly go after what we want. And we can't allow this. A well-functioning society depends on our success.
We need to have the courage, the bravery, the boldness, to chase our dreams.
How do I know if I’m a perfectionist?
There are many indicators of a perfectionist, but the main themes are:
1. Over attention to things that don’t matter
Maybe it starts off with wondering if people will notice the scuff on the inside of your right wedge, or if that column in your spreadsheet should have been centered instead of aligned to the left. You allow your mind to obsess over tiny (dare I say insignificant?) details that most other people will not notice or even care about. Instead of moving on in favor of the big picture, you easily get lost in the minutia.
2. Black & white thinking
Ever quit on your diet a few days in because you had ONE hiccup? Decide you are not good at something because it didn’t come naturally to you within the first few attempts? Give up on your New Years resolution after a few weeks because you missed a day or two? Many perfectionists believe that there is no room for the in between grey area. What a TOUGH line to walk when you’re not willing to allow yourself ANY mistakes. The absurdity of it all is that logically, humans KNOW that perfection doesn’t exist, and yet we still allow it so much control over our decisions!
This is probably one of the biggest signs that you’re a perfectionist. Why? Because we use the “oh, I didn’t have enough time” excuse to protect us from failure. You either convince yourself that it wasn't your best because you "didn't have enough time to finish" OR if everything went well, you could have been so much better if you "had even more time" to finish. Either way, you're either protecting yourself or giving your ego a boast.
Start noticing your own patterns around time management. Are you allowing a lot of other tasks get in the way of beginning? Are you often stressed as a deadline approaches?
4. Need to control an image
From the perfect photo filter and angle used to make you appear slimmer, to the person who needs to create a perception of wealth on social media, to the person who refuses to leave the house without designer clothes... all of these are examples of people needing to be viewed in their best light AT ALL TIMES. There is often an instance in a young perfectionist-in-the-making's life when they were misjudged and their reputation was threatened. To "ensure this never happens again" many perfectionists become obsessive about their need to control how they are perceived by others. And sometimes, this is taken to the extreme.
Perfectionists s.t.r.u.g.g.l.e. with micromanaging. It’s hard. They conceptually “know” that micromanagement is the sign of a bad leader, yet it is still sooo difficult for many to avoid putting into practice. How could it not be?! People are usually conditioned to worry about what other people think constantly and know that whatever this other person produces will be a direct reflection on us. That’s when you start to think...”But what if their level of detail isn’t good enough? What if they completely F it up because they don’t see my ask? Ok, I’ll just give them a quick visual so they know EXACTLY what I want. Oh wait, yes let me add the metrics I want them to use and... oh! And let me tell them which images would be best... and... you know what? Screw it. It will be faster if I just do it myself.”
Sound familiar? And the crazy thing is that so many of perfectionists are SO busy (self inflicted) that they have absolutely no business taking on more work! This could also create a scenario where you can't slow down and ensure that the end product is “flawless” as a result. This not only hurts the final product, but it hurts your relationships with others. Most can’t help but see your need to control the result as a personal attack or a lack of trust in their abilities. Man. Feeling any guilt? I am! Let’s keep rolling...
This is a tough one. On the one hand, perfectionists are so insecure about themselves that they NEED to control their image to make certain that people like them. On the other hand, they can be a bit narcissistic (hear me out) and judge other people harshly for not meeting their ridiculously high expectations. They can't help but think, "I would have done it so much better..." or "wow, they're wearing that to this event?". When they allow this happen they find their self-criticism extending to those closest to them (which we know is unfair). It is a viscous circle that stems from self-worth issues closely tied to perfectionism (which is a whole other topic for a later post).
7. Struggle with feedback
Note that I said feedback and didn't include the word "negative". Perfectionists tend to reject any feedback—positive or negative. If the feedback is positive, they tell the provider of the feedback that "well I got help from X", or "it wasn't really me it was the team...", or "I could have done better". If the feedback is negative their responses are even worse. They either completely shut down and attack themselves from the inside, or they become confrontational in an attempt to protect themselves from their shame over making a mistake.
Why do we become perfectionists?
If you've made it this far it's likely that you've realized you're a perfectionist. Well, you're probably wondering how you got here. I'm not a therapist, but experts in psychology have identified three major causes that have led to the rise of this issue: our school systems, ability to cope with negative emotions, social media, and the values we were taught.
1. School system
Between grades, standardized tests, and behavior charts, it is no wonder that many of us have become perfectionists. We were trained to compete for a fixed grade or percentage that dictated our success throughout our childhood. Many of us also allowed our grades to determine our value. Did you ever beat yourself up over an 89 or an A-? You're not alone! I remember having a chemistry teacher that would put origami swans on the desks of the students who got A's. If I didn't have a swan? I would be so ashamed and I'd tear myself up about it ALL day. It wasn't the swan or the exam... it was that I felt less than, that the test "proved" I wasn't smart to everyone.
Like many others, I also viewed good grades as a way out. My family didn't come from money and we had a long list of reasons why we couldn't afford this, buy that, or go there. As a kid that was made fun of for being poor, I was enamored with the idea of wealth and luxury that I saw on TV. I bought into the idea that if I got good grades and made it into the top 10% of my school, I could get into a great college and find a six-figure job.
Kids that believed in this "way out" were especially susceptible to fear of failure or exposure when the grade came back less than their standards.
2. Not equipped to handle negative emotions
We've all heard about toxic masculinity and it's affects on society's mental health epidemic. Did you also know that this is a cause for perfectionism? A lot of perfectionists are made because they're not taught how to safely and productively manage their negative emotions. Instead of allowing their grief and anger to be expressed, their parents would attempt to suppress or distract them from their pain. We were denied the opportunity to process and work through any negative emotions. As a result, they are often not equipped to handle the challenges that come with living a typical life—like struggling with confrontation. Every little avoidance of negative interactions at work, home, or with friends can cause us to harbor our emotions internally—which we know leads to anxious behaviors like perfectionism.
3. Social media comparison
For the past few decades, the number of people who identify as perfectionists have increased as social media has gained in popularity. Coincidence? Unlikely. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok have given people the ability to display an extremely refined image of themselves and their materials online—inspiring competition and envy from onlookers. Social media has give perfectionists the ultimate self-destruction tool as they seek to memorialize their image or appearance of perfection. As long as we're only looking at other's highlight reels, it is easy to perpetuate this perfectionism mindset.
4. Limiting beliefs we were taught
Parents, teachers, coaches, etc. are (usually) well intended when they're trying to help raise kids. They do the best they can with the tools that they have and these are often tools that were passed down to them. Unfortunately, the language that they use with kids from an early age will create the foundation for a lot of (limiting) beliefs later in life. Using phrases like "you're so smart, you're so pretty, you're so .....XYZ" encourages us to go after the perception of naturally "being" something great. This prevents a lot of kids from wanting to disrupt this reputation; the cause of a fixed mindset.
As an alternative, parents could use "growth mindset" phrases like, "It looks like you put so much effort toward this and it really shows" or "you worked so hard on this", or "this was such a challenge and you really pushed yourself", etc.
How to stop being a perfectionist?
Perfectionism is a part of you, but it is not always a bad thing. In fact, you can hone your perfectionism to become adaptive and use it to produce excellent quality work (and stop short of unproductivity). Additionally, you can work towards a growth mindset and away from a fixed mindset to control the toxic side of perfectionism.
Thankfully by the end of this post you've already done the best thing you can do on your journey to becoming a perfectionist that can be productive AF—becoming aware. Now that you're aware of the issue, you can use the below tips to help manage and detox from your inner perfectionist:
1. Be kind to yourself as you adopt a growth mindset
Everyone struggles with perfectionism to some extent. You found this post and nearly made it to the end, so you're already on the right track towards making positive change. Allow yourself to make mistakes, do not beat yourself up mentally over them, and approach everything from the perspective of "this doesn't have to be perfect, but can I do a little better than the last time?". Embrace all of your imperfections as they occur and you will find that you're so much happier in the long run. I've even found that my anxiety has drastically improved!
Embrace challenges and work to accept "failure" as an exciting opportunity to grow and expand what you can learn.
2. Embrace the creative process
Know that your first iteration is just an draft! No one creates a final draft on their first attempt. Brene Brown has a motto in her book Dare To Lead (highly recommend by the way) for the stories we tell ourselves and she calls it the "shitty first draft". AMEN! While she's referring to emotions, you can apply this same thought to the creative process. Whatever you're working on, shut the blinds and let the imperfect crap come out first. Know that you will have the time to tweak the project until it is imperfectly finished.
3. Give yourself a timeline (and include deadlines!)
Count to five and start. You do not need to do wait for the right moment or do any amount of chores before beginning. Avoid the "I'll eventually get to it" and the "never quite ready" phase by giving yourself strict timelines and deadlines. If your project is self-managed, find ways to commit yourself to your timeline. Maybe you have an accountability buddy, post your goals online, or incentivize your progress with a reward. The point is to find a way to track your progress, insure you're being efficient with your time, and identifying when you need to hit a stopping point before you've gone too far.
Wrapping it up
The biggest point to take away from this post is this—awareness is half the battle. You have everything within you that you need to overcome the overwhelm and rewire your brain. If enough people can become aware of this issue and work to make personal change, perhaps one day this positive mindset shift will allow more people to take control of their mental health and their lives. I hope this helps you in your journey to be a more productive, recovering perfectionist.
-- Bre Brown
Check out this discussion in podcast form: