April 6, 2022

Toxic Perfectionism

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Are you struggling with perfectionism? Read on to learn about common signs of perfectionism, helpful coping strategies, and when to consider psychotherapy.

What is perfectionism? Perfectionism can be best described as the drive to achieve an idealized version of yourself. This striving typically includes unrealistic self-appraisal, as well as unrealistic standards and expectations for yourself. Perfectionism is the relentless pursuit of the highest standards for oneself that most others would perceive as unreasonable, or unnecessary.

How did I become a perfectionist? Perfectionism develops through certain kinds of interactions and relationship dynamics with our earliest caregivers. Having parents with unrealistically high expectations, parents who are excessively critical, or parents who only respond to their child’s needs intermittently contribute to the development of perfectionism. When parents are excessively critical, harsh, or judgmental, children may internalize their standards, believing that nothing less than perfection is acceptable. When parents only sporadically respond to the needs of their child, he or she may strive for perfection to win over their love and affection.

How do I know whether I’m a perfectionist?

  • When you evaluate yourself, you tend to be overly harsh or critical.

  • You think in all-or-nothing terms. There’s no room for gray areas.

  • You feel easily discouraged when the result of your efforts doesn’t match or exceed your expectations.

  • You suffer from the belief that you’re not good enough and should be doing/performing better.

  • You struggle with feelings of low self-worth.

  • You show a tendency toward procrastination, putting off tasks and assignments for as long as possible.

  • You’re quick to feel disappointed by others or by situations that fall short of your expectations.

  • You rarely feel satisfied by your accomplishments.

What’s the connection between perfectionism and anxiety? Perfectionism and anxiety are inseparable insofar as perfectionists suffer from anxiety, whether or not they are conscious of it. For many perfectionists, their process of self-appraisal is stressful and anxiety-inducing, and anxiety frequently arises when they fail to live up to their ideals. Perfectionists often ruminate on their shortcomings, and their attacking self-reproach produces anxiety. According to research, a significant percentage of individuals with perfectionistic tendencies also express symptoms of OCD and depression.

When should I consider seeing a therapist? If your perfectionist tendencies are causing you emotional distress or impairing your relationships, work performance, or your ability to enjoy life, then it’s worthwhile to consult a mental health professional.

What can I do to cope if I’m not ready for therapy? Addressing perfectionism often requires long-term therapy; however, there are a few strategies that one can try before considering psychotherapy.

1) Listen to and observe the way you speak to yourself. Notice how harshly you judge your actions, and how critical you are toward yourself. Practice self-compassion by replacing harsh statements with words of affirmation, kindness, and encouragement. We often fear that if we’re kind to ourselves, we’ll settle for less. However, the opposite is true: the more we treat ourselves with compassion, the greater the chance we have of thriving.

2) Let go of your initial reaction. When you fail to live up to your standards, you are likely to respond with cruel self-recrimination. Notice the thought, and let it pass. Take some space from thinking about what triggered these thoughts, and come back to it when you’re ready to take a gentler approach with yourself.

3) Consult an outside source. Often, we lose the inability to maintain perspective when we’re evaluating ourselves, and it can be immensely helpful to consult a friend or loved one who may have a different outlook. Rather than dismiss their opinion, take it into consideration, and try adopting their approach to your own way of thinking.