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The Damaging Power of Perfectionism (And How to Quit)

One of the promises I have made to myself this year is that I’m going to cut myself a break. By that I mean I’m done with perfectionism: the running around, the busy-ness just for the sake of busy-ness, the people-pleasing, the incessant need to look and act as if perfection were even possible.

I’m just done with it. It’s exhausting and it’s aging me faster than I want to age and it’s an endless pursuit, a bottomless pit of desire that can never be filled.

perfectionist

The problem is (and maybe you can relate), as soon as I work to cut myself some slack every now and then—to tell myself, “just take a nap!” or “it’s not a big deal if you’re five minutes late” or “it’s perfectly reasonable to take the day off,” there is this logical, analytical, very reasonable part of me that says things like:

  • “You’re not a perfectionist. You just insist upon quality.”
  • “So you like things clean. What’s the big deal about that?”
  • “You are never late. That’s what people love about you.”
  • “You’re an achiever. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
  • “If you cut yourself a break, you’re going to start producing sub-par work.”

This is the crazy-making part about perfectionism: our culture worships perfectionists. We love them. They make great employees, great neighbors, great spouses and even great friends—or at least that’s how it seems. It’s one of the few personality flaws you can present in a job interview as your “greatest weakness” to make yourself look good.

It’s one of the few flaws we enjoy revealing about ourselves because it makes us feel good. But what is the real toll of perfectionism on our bodies, our hearts, our minds?

The unspoken downside of perfectionism.

The most obvious downside to perfectionism—and it’s almost so obvious that I can’t believe how often we all miss it—is that there really is no such thing as perfection. Think of the implications of this. If there is no such thing as perfection, and a perfectionist relies on perfection for her happiness, this leaves her one of two options:

  1. Live a life without happiness; OR
  2. Lie to herself and others to “simulate” the perfection she craves.

Can you think of a time that you refused to be happy with an aspect of your life because it wasn’t totally perfect—an event, a person, a relationship, a home, a job, a conversation, a day, a gift? Conversely, can you think of a time when you lied to yourself or someone else about one of those things—a relationship, a situation, an event, an aspect of your personality—to make it seem “just perfect” even when you knew it wasn’t?

I wonder how often we forgo true happiness for the sake of our pursuit of perfection—something that doesn’t even exist.

Perfectionism and friendship.

As if that’s not motivation enough to surrender our incessant need to be perfect, perfectionists also have a very hard time making and keeping friends. This seems counter-intuitive in some ways (who wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who is perfect?) but makes sense when you think about the two alternatives discussed above.

Who wants to be friends with a liar, or someone who is perpetually unhappy?

It is very hard for a perfectionist to share his or her internal experience with a partner,” Springer writes in Psychology Today. “Perfectionists often feel that they must always be strong and in control of their emotions. A perfectionist may avoid talking about personal fears, inadequacies, insecurities, and disappointments with others, even with those with whom they are closest. —Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post

There are a host of other symptoms to perfectionism—including procrastination, depression, excessive guilt, and extreme defensiveness, but we’ll get to those in a minute.

What is perfectionism exactly?

It’s important to talk about what perfectionism is exactly because the ailment has some clever ways of masking itself.

For example, when I was in my twenties, I would have never called myself a perfectionist because in my mind, I was a total screw-up, incapable of achieving the things I desired in my life. I could have cited a million reasons why that was the case, but the main idea was, in my mind, I was so far from perfect, I couldn’t possibly be considered a perfectionist.

Meanwhile, I was a classic perfectionist—never enough for myself.

Perfectionists often have conditional self-esteem: They like themselves when they are on top and dislike themselves when things don’t go their way. Can you learn to like yourself even when you are not doing well? Focus on inner qualities like your character, sincerity, or good values, rather than just on what grades you get, how much you get paid, or how many people like you.  — Melanie Greenberg, PhD

Perfectionists cannot stand anything about themselves or others that does not meet their impossibly high standards, so they are constantly beating themselves over the head for their imperfections.

[Hint: We are all imperfect. We might as well get cozy with it.]

Another way that perfectionism masks itself is by getting us to say things like, “I’m not a perfectionist. I’m just a high achiever.” This is probably the way perfectionism masks itself in my life most often these days. I might as well be saying, “I’m not a perfectionist. I just like things to be totally perfect, all the time.”

There is a distinct different between perfectionism and high achievement:

While high achievers take pride in their accomplishments and tend to be supportive of others, perfectionists tend to spot tiny mistakes and imperfections in their work and in themselves, as well as in others and their work. They hone in on these imperfections and have trouble seeing anything else, and they’re more judgmental and hard on themselves and on others when ‘failure’ does occur. —Stress Management expert, Elizabeth Scott, MS

So in other words, the difference between perfectionism and high achievement has less to do with what we do or don’t do than it does with how we think about what we do or don’t do.

  • A high achiever says, “I like to stay busy, but this week I’m feeling really tired, so I’m going to take a few nights at home and rest.” Meanwhile a perfectionist says, “What is wrong with me? I’m no more busy this week than I am any other week. Why am I so tired? I’m such a failure.”
  • A high achiever says, “I would really love to achieve fill-in-the-blank goal this year, but I feel a little bit nervous about whether or not I will be able to do it. I guess I’ll just get started and enjoy the process and see how far I can get.” A perfectionist says, “I would really love to achieve fill-in-the-blank goal this year but [insert one million excuses why it will never work]” and goes on feeling like a total failure because she can’t be happy with herself until she completes that goal.
  • A high achiever says, “taking that new poetry class or getting that degree sounds so fun. I’m always looking for ways to enrich myself. I’m going to sign up.” A perfectionist says, “all my friends are taking poetry classes so I guess I better do the same thing so I don’t get left behind. I’m stressed to the max with everything I already have going on, but… what other choice do I have?”

We think being a perfectionist gets us where we want to go in life—that we can create these little personal boot-camps for ourselves to get our butts out the door and exercising and eating salads and reading books. We become our own personal drill sergeants and assume this is really the only way to make progress.

Get up you lazy bum! Put down that ice cream and get moving! Write that darn book already! Have some self-respect and change out of your sweat pants!

The great irony of perfectionism is that while it’s characterized by an intense drive to succeed, it can be the very thing that prevents success. Perfectionism is highly correlated with fear of failure (which is generally not the best motivator) and self-defeating behavior, such as excessive procrastination.

The only way I’ve ever made progress in my life is by cutting myself some slack, backing off of myself and little and by giving myself enough space to reconnect with what I really want.

Perfectionism, Depression, Anxiety and Suicide

One of the things I find most fascinating and also terrifying about the perfectionism conversation is the link to depression and anxiety. I think part of the reason I find this connection so interesting is because of the long battle I’ve had with both both of those afflictions. And it isn’t hard to understand how the destructive thought patterns so indicative of perfectionism would also be extremely anxiety-provoking.

What could be more anxiety-provoking than trying to achieve an impossible outcome?

But the study that really got me thinking was this one, from 2007, about the connection between those who admitted impossibly high standards for themselves and suicide rates:

Without prompting, more than half of the deceased were described as “perfectionists” by their loved ones. Similarly, in a British study of students who committed suicide, 11 out of the 20 students who’d died were described by those who knew them as being afraid of failure. In another study, published last year, more than 70 percent of 33 boys and young men who had killed themselves were said by their parents to have placed “exceedingly high” demands and expectations on themselves — traits associated with perfectionism. —Melissa Dahl, New York Mag

The article goes on to say that, in addition to the connection between perfectionism and the act of suicide, one of the great dangers of this connection is that perfectionists are the least likely to admit their need for help, to reach out for support, or to admit how overwhelmed they feel by their feelings of inadequacy.

So not only might perfectionism be driving suicidal impulses, it might also be hiding them.

Overcoming Perfectionism

One challenge I have given myself lately is this: just show up. By that I mean, I’m releasing myself from the anxiety of trying be perfect, act perfect, work toward perfection, or even desire perfection. All I have to do is just exist in the world exactly as I am—even if that’s sad, scared, tired, overwhelmed, or a total screw up.

When I’m feeling less-than-perfect, I don’t have to hide.

In fact, this is the very best time to show up.

  • “I know we have plans to hang out tonight, but I’m feeling really tired. Can you forgive me for cancelling at the last minute?”
  • “I handled that the wrong way. I’m so sorry.”
  • “I don’t know how to do that, but I’m going to give it a try.”
  • “I’m furious with you. I am not going to take it out on you, but you’ve hurt me and I’m angry.”
  • “I’m so proud of myself for the progress I’ve made. I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I’m working hard and I’m thankful for my commitment and dedication.”

Can I pass this challenge on to you, too?

What would it look like for you to just show up in your life today—without trying to perfectly pull yourself together, or to have things perfectly situated or figured out? What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about whether or not you were going to get it exactly right?

The second thing I’ve worked to do as I am learning to surrender my perfectionism is to surround myself with people who also don’t need or expect me (or themselves) to be perfect all the time. You’d be surprised how totally contagious perfectionism is. If you’re hanging out with perfectionists, you’re not only more than likely becoming a perfectionist, you’re also probably suffering the residual side-effects of their unhappiness.

Perfectionism makes us angry, sore losers, competitive jerks, judgmental of ourselves and others and ultimately unhappy.

I love this “Goodbye letter” to perfectionism written by Kristin Lee on Psychology today, where she speaks directly to this connection:

I met some new friends who are much more easy-going: self-acceptance, self-compassion and authenticity. They’ve taught me that life is not about performance, or being perfect. They really like me for who I am, not what I do. It turns out that they think all that perfect business is fake, contrived, and pretty annoying, too. They don’t care about my GPA, performance reviews or any of my accomplishments. They love it when I am happy, and being myself, without worry of rejection or scrutiny. It doesn’t matter to them how I look or what I do, and they don’t listen to the peanut gallery prescriptions out there about that, either. They make fun of the media messages supporting your cause.

So this is my second challenge for you today: who are you spending time with that is holding you to an impossible standard you can’t keep?

Do you have enough courage and self-kindness to gently let those relationships go?

The truth is perfection is impossible, but happiness is TOTALLY possible. It is possible and even probable when we are able to integrate our failures and flaws and mistakes and accept them as part of ourselves, not something to be cleaned out or altered before we could ever begin to be worthy of love.

You are worthy of love right now, just as you are. Happiness is at your fingertips. It always has been.

All you have to do is take hold of it.

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Allison Fallon

I write books. I help people write books. I believe a regular practice of writing can change your life.

33 thoughts on “The Damaging Power of Perfectionism (And How to Quit)”

  1. Excellent post. It hit very close to home and was another reminder of all that I miss by holding myself and others to an impossibly high standard. Your posts always cause me to stop and think and evaluate. Appreciate your vulnerability and personal insight and your use of studies and quotes to emphasize your points. Love your writing.

  2. I loved this and I feel the same way. I use perfectionism as an excuse to get out of doing the things I want to do most in the world because I’m just so afraid of the final perfect being imperfect. I started a novel two years ago and I think about it every day, but I just have been so concerned with this ideal that I have barely worked on it! Thank you for this!

    1. mm

      I can so identify with that, Nicole—and I think so many writers can. People say, “good is the enemy of great” but for me it seems more like “perfect is the enemy of even trying at all.” 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  3. I will honestly say I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but this post has me thinking other wise. I’m fine with making mistakes, I realize I can learn from those moments, but what I’ve never thought about is this…

    “It is very hard for a perfectionist to share his or her internal experience with a partner,” Springer writes in Psychology Today. “Perfectionists often feel that they must always be strong and in control of their emotions. A perfectionist may avoid talking about personal fears, inadequacies, insecurities, and disappointments with others, even with those with whom they are closest. —Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post

    I literally will do anything to stay in control of my emotions and anyone will tell you i’m one of the strongest people they know. When I am willing to talk about fears or inadequacies etc I’ve realized I always have something to say. I’ve always got answers to those issues so that I don’t actually have to face the emotions that come with it, in front of other people.

    When I asked a friend the other day about what she thought was blocking my spiritual journey and growing in my faith, she said it was my fear of being untangled. And i’d agree with this any day, but somehow hearing it from another individual made me extremely uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because that means I’m not strong, I don’t have it all together if others can see my flaws without me telling them…I’m not perfect. #truth

    However, the good news is, this friend loves me even though I am this way and I struggle to allow myself to express my emotions, fears, insecurities and to admit that I am just another messy human being that sometimes needs to figure out how to let herself become untangled.

    Perfectionism in my life doesn’t look like how I’d define it, but this entry has helped me begin to see that my thoughts and not just my actions can have a tendency to shoot towards the un-achievable and unhealthy goal of perfection… might need to sit with that tension for awhile…

    1. mm

      This was really beautiful, Emily. Your awareness is an incredible asset to you. And I love what your friend said about willing to come “untangled”. That resonates with me deeply. May we all be a little more willing to let ourselves come untangled.

    2. Hi! This really resonated with me – the article, and your comment.

      I love how your friend accepts you as you are… and this includes accepting that at present you struggle with sharing your feelings. Even though I’ve never met either of you, by sharing this you’ve helped me in a small way (the small ways all add up to big ways).

      The word “untangled” resonates too 🙂

  4. I have my own issues with perfectionism and shall certainly reread and meditate on your complete analysis.

    Meanwhile, I just had what I think was an amusing interaction about it. At a show of a neighbor’s very elaborate inlay work — i[ to 40 different type of wood in various curved or angular pieces in each tray or tabletop — I chatted with his long-term partner.

    I’ve gotten a tour of the artist’s basement workshop and his upstairs CAD setup. He has several thousand pieces of wood from around the world. He also makes his own jigs because no one sells exactly what he wants.

    I asked his partner if he worked with him or helped. He paused and laughed. He said occasionally he’ll hold a stack of pieces while Richard cuts the pile. He added, “When you live with a perfectionist, you learn to stand back.”

  5. I’m kind of speechless right now. I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist before. I’ve always seen myself, in fact, as an underachiever. But as I read this post, I see the symptoms of perfectionism inside of myself. The conditional self-esteem, the ridiculously high standards for myself, etc. Ive been struggling with anxiety for the past two months and couldn’t find the source. And now I see it. Thanks, Ally!

  6. Another insightful post. I am a fellow recovering perfectionist, and have also struggled in the past with depression, anxiety, and for a brief period, suicidal thoughts. I’ve thought a lot about the link between those things and perfectionism, and it really makes sense.

    It’s so exhausting to seek perfection and permanence outside of Christ – to try in our own strength to do things perfectly or to place too much hope in others and try to control our relationships in a way that makes them last forever. Only God is perfect, and only His love is eternally true. I think it comforts me to know that perfection does exist, but not on the human level…

    I have a tendency to be hard on myself, as you talked about, and then to put other people with “stronger” personalities on pedestals and view them as near-perfect… and that has a history of crashing down terribly and painfully for me, because they turn out to be human after all. So it’s good for me to remember that “grace is our only hope,” as Jen Hatmaker put it. We’re all flawed, sinful, and sometimes aggravating human beings, so I’m practicing grace for myself and others, while knowing that I can fully count on God’s love and faithfulness in every season!

    1. WOW I cannot believe how much your comment rings true to me. As an anxious semi-perfectionist I think viewing others as higher, closer to perfect, or “on pedestals” is so detrimental to God’s message! I would say I have the same problem; inferiority based on looks or, as you said, personalities, hinders my life. I’m introverted and hard on myself for not being more gregarious, and I sure rank myself lower based on looks. I think society teaches us to search for that unreachable perfection. You know, even if we see someone who seems to have it all together, how s/he appears may not be the truth. The very best thing to remember, though, is that the Lord sees us all equally. So by searching for perfection we are running an endless and pointless race–there is no hierarchy in God’s eyes, so nor does He see one as better than another. And like you touched on, the only thing that can fulfill our human needs for love or acceptance or anything else is HIS LOVE! I think God created us to try our very best and to accept that perfection is unattainable and, if it weren’t, that would defeat the purpose of the Cross!

    2. mm

      “I have a tendency to be hard on myself, as you talked about, and then to put other people with “stronger” personalities on pedestals and view them as near-perfect… and that has a history of crashing down terribly and painfully for me, because they turn out to be human after all.”

      This has been such a huge lesson for me in the past couple of years. When we put people on pedestals, or when we stand on them ourselves, we can’t connect. It’s very lonely to be above or beneath people. It’s not the way we are called to live, I’m convinced.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Powerful stuff.

  7. Part of the problem is that there are two distinct forms of perfectionism: one that focuses on self, and one that focuses on others. Too often a self-perfectionist becomes that way because a parent, family member, or other close party was an other-perfectionist who took it out on the self-perfectionist-to-be. Family ties just make things even messier, since that’s when the “self-perf” can transform into an “other-perf” (if I may use those shorthand terms).

    I’m a self-perf. I grew up “expected” to be, know, do, and avoid all sorts of things I had no hope of being, knowing, doing, and avoiding. The famous line about “crying over spilled milk” was real to me; my father knew how to make me cry, then laugh at me when I did. That, in turn, messes up how I believe my Heavenly Father views me. “Obey, and you’ll be OK.” That folds into the secular-but-legalistic society of “supposed-to’s” in which I grew up.

    Give myself a break? Every time I try, I regret it, because someone else is there to break me. Quality? Yeah, I take pride in that, and I have a hard time understanding why others aren’t that committed. “Good enough” only works if you run out of time or resources.

    In short, I fall into much of the same traps you describe, Allison, though not all. There’s not even a perfect definition of “perfectionist.” How’s that for messing with the mind of a perfectionist? 🙂

    1. mm

      I hadn’t thought about dividing out self-perfectionists from other-perfectionists before, since in my experience the two are one in the same. By that I mean that people who hold themselves to impossible standards invariably hold others to those same standards. We all just might express it a bit differently. Some of us express it with hostility. Others with judgement. Others with a silent (often very subtle) feeling of superiority.

      But yes, you bring up a great point about our family relationships (or early relationships) having a deep impact on our concept of what is required of us and how valuable we are. None of us come from perfect models, but some of us have far more to overcome than others. It sounds like you have a lot to overcome.

      The good news is that with work and intentional effort, those early patterns CAN be overcome. People are doing it everyday. With perseverance and courage we can learn to radically love and accept ourselves in spite of our flaws.

    2. “Give myself a break? Every time I try, I regret it, because someone else is there to break me.”

      My mum did angry lectures until she could make me cry. Perhaps this was the only way she could get the closure she needed? People say mean things when they think they won’t be OK if they don’t. I think she was ashamed of this, but hid it.

      She never took pleasure in the fact that I “made her” have to lecture me like that. I’m so sorry that your dad would laugh at you when he made you cry.

  8. I love this post, Ally! So true. It rocked my world when I read Brene Brown’s definition of perfectionism: a cognitive-behavioral fear/avoidance of shame. Shame?! I thought about it and it hit me hard. Perfectionism isn’t about a job well done or a life well lived. It’s about fear + misplaced identity (i.e., shame).

    1. mm

      Love that Brene Brown! She’s the real expert. I’m just living proof that what she writes is true. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thank you for writing this post, Allison. I’ve struggled with being a perfectionist every since I was a child. I’ve always felt not quite good enough. I am learning to let go of some of the expectations I place on myself and others, do my best, and enjoy the moment. Thank you for the reminder and the great tips!

    1. mm

      Jeff—thanks for sharing. It’s amazing what an impact those early experiences can have on our concept of ourselves. Not to mention how truly difficult it can be to overcome those patterns. Keep up the good work. Glad you liked the post!

  10. A thousand yes’s!!! God has really been showing me the dangers and deception of perfectionism. In fact, several weeks ago I made (for myself, as a constant reminder) a new Facebook cover that says “Perfection is the enemy”. What is sad is that many relationships were hurt by my “needing” to be right (which was a reflection of my insecurities, not of them). I am grateful for the revelation of this over the last year, and God’s loving help as I learn, grow, and recover. Perfectionism is, in essence, idolatry, since only God is perfect (so in our striving for perfection we are attempting to be God ourselves… To be holy…. Which is humanly impossible). I need Jesus, which means I am perfectly imperfect. And I’m okay with that. 🙂

    1. mm

      Carissa—I’m so glad you mentioned how perfectionism doesn’t just hurt us personally but also hurts the people around us. I have lots of apologizing to do for the ways my perfectionism has hurt others. Great point. Thanks for bringing that up.

  11. Thank you Allison! I’m now spending time with more people who encourage my creative, fun loving self to blossom, rather than my critical, perfectionistic self. This is quite freeing.

  12. Alizee Laroche

    Hi Allison!

    I just wanted to say thank you for writing about perfectionism. For 20 years since the age of 9, I have been hiding behind perfectionism and control and a latent anorexia. It became my identity. Now at 29, I am on a journey that is asking me to release all of that. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much perfectionism ruled my life. I never understood why I could never be 100{9ac618bfda39dd0c8c9a0232963cb9a2adfe54a7367c2d4954ad9e847b2e5305} happy. From depression to suicidal attempts, I hit rock bottom in my early 20s. And still today, I drive myself mad while trying to control and analyze my emotions. It’s even gotten to the point that I now project my OCD with food and the fear of being fat onto my husband. Your article shed some light for me on the truth of how surrendering to the here and now is the only answer. Do you have any other tools to share? Thank you again! This was an important read.

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