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Perfectionism: Why Am I and How Can I Stop Being a Perfectionist

Oct 21, 2021

In our society, we often give so much praise to high-achievers and don't usually see perfectionism as a negative. After all, perfectionism just means that people produce the best quality work and pay attention to detail - right? Not exactly. Perfectionism has broader implications and can be as much a hindrance to high productivity as not making any attempt at all. Perfectionists are not always happy with their tendencies and often struggle under the weight of perfectionism.  

Related: How to Deal with Overwhelm in 2021

What is Perfectionism

Generally, perfectionism is the drive to unrealistically high standards and personal improvement. It's a personality type that pursues perfection or flawlessness with crippling effects. Perfectionism affects men and women and isn't restricted to any socio-economic group, race, or age bracket. Perfectionism may be found in the business world, in education, politics, media, medicine, and even at home. 

The effect of reaching for unattainable goals, trying to live by unrealistic ideals, and being unable to achieve satisfaction with their hard work, leads to many unpleasant and harmful tendencies.  

Here are just a few of the offshoots of perfectionism, from mild to severe:

  • Negative self talk
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
  • Suicidal thoughts

This list is incomplete. It should also include other psychological, physical, relational, and achievement issues in the lives of the individual. 

Types of Perfectionism

Perfectionism may be categorized into one of three types:

Self-Oriented: This leads people to be conscientious and driven to succeed in personal development and performance, as well as career advancement. 

A person with self-oriented perfectionism may say:

  • I must achieve my full potential every day. 
  • I work to be as perfect as I can be. 
  • I set very high standards for myself.

Other-Oriented: This leads one to be harshly judgemental and critical of other people's performance. In the work environment, this type may micromanage tasks if they're given to others at all. They may not delegate for fear of other people's sub-par performance. 

An other-oriented perfectionist might say:

  • I can't be around people who aren't striving to be their best selves like me. 
  • If I delegate a task, I expect it to be done as perfectly as if I had done it myself.
  • I hate people who are happy being less than their full potential.

Socially-Prescribed: This is when the person is driven, not by an internal need for perfection but out of pressure from outside sources (real or imagined). A person with socially prescribed perfectionism might feel that to be loved and accepted, they must reach an impossibly high standard of performance. Anxiety is a major problem with this type

A person with socially prescribed perfectionism might say:

  • People expect too much from me - I'm exhausted.
  • No matter how hard I try, I just can't meet other people's expectations of me. 
  • Everyone expects me to be perfect.

Are you a physician who is also a perfectionist? Our life coaching for physicians can help you achieve a healthier, less stressful life. Visit Deanna Larson MD for more information. 

Is Perfectionism a Mental Disorder?

Viewing the list of dysfunction, disorder, and overall adverse conditions associated with perfectionism, it isn't hard to assume that it is a disorder. Although it may lead to a mental disorder in itself, perfectionism is not a disorder

Perfectionism is tough on a person's mental health and can cause them to make poor decisions, challenge their close relationships, and never enjoy their lives. 

Related: How to Say No When You’re Overwhelmed

What Are the Signs of a Perfectionist?

Now that you know what perfectionism is, here's how to tell if you're a perfectionist.

  • Nothing is ever good enough for you. You find it hard to enjoy your successes or even to see them. 
  • Despite your many efforts, you have never achieved perfection (or so you feel).
  • You pretend everything is perfect even when it is obviously not. You're afraid of the judgment of others.
  • You don't cut yourself any slack. You allow yourself no mistakes or shortfalls. You insist that everything you do has to be perfect all the time.
  • You run from challenges. You don't want to take on things that you cannot do to perfection. 
  • You aren't enjoying your life. Nothing is ever going well enough for you.
  • You think people like you only because of your achievements or fantastic performance. 

What is the Root Cause of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is rooted in a belief that a person's self-worth is based on their achievements. It is a way to gain love, acceptance, and praise. 

Perfectionism may develop if any of the following factors are present:

  • Low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy
  • Parents who are highly critical, abusive, or shaming
  • Excessive praise for achievements
  • Rigid thinking 
  • High parental expectations
  • Cultural expectations
  • A lack of control led to efforts to gain some control

Very often, perfectionism began as a result of having parents who would accept nothing but perfection. If the goal was not achieved, there could be name-calling, shaming, physical abuse, silence, or unfair comparisons. Children growing up in this environment will not only suffer in childhood, but they will take these beliefs and behaviors into adulthood

How to Stop Being a Perfectionist

Even though perfectionist tendencies are often encouraged in some sectors, we know that they take a toll on the person and those around them. Here are a few things you can do to stop being a perfectionist

  1. Be aware you have a problem. The first step in correcting any issue is to recognize that there is an issue to correct.
  2. Set more attainable goals. Don't fear that you're beginning a downward spiral. Your goals can be high without being unrealistic.
  3. Allow for mistakes. Recognize that mistakes happen, and don't be overly tough on yourself. 
  4. Focus on the positives. Focus on what you got right and what's going well. You can do that and still hold high standards.
  5. Be more gentle with yourself. The pressure you put on yourself and the damage that can come from that is far more than someone else can do. 
  6. Learn how to take criticism. Learn how not to feel attacked when you or your work are critiqued. Take what is useful and discard the rest. 
  7. Focus on meaning and not perfection. Make producing meaningful work your goal, not flawless work. 
  8. Find positive friends. If people around you encourage perfection, it might be time to find a more supportive circle. 

Related: Physician Burnout: Everything You Need to Know

Final Thoughts

If you find yourself setting unrealistically high standards for yourself, making yourself and people around you miserable, stop. Stop and recognize your behavior, then get some help. Belief systems don't change easily or quickly. You may need the assistance of a life coach who can walk you through it. It will be worth it for the sake of your mental health and happier life.  

If you’re a physician who is facing burnout due to perfectionism or anything else, we can help. Contact Deanna Larson MD to learn more. 

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