This Is What The Scary Side of Perfectionism Looks Like
Being a perfectionist isn't always something to brag about—it can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
In a job interview, the classic answer to "What's your biggest weakness?" is "I'm a perfectionist"—a total cop-out that allows you to wear your "weakness" as a badge of pride. Thing is, people who have perfectionist tendencies are sometimes more than just detail-oriented high achievers. They are often racked with anxiety, depression, and fear, and in one 2014 paper published in the Review of General Psychology, researchers suggested that perfectionism may be a risk factor for suicide.
Perfectionism can be a healthy personality trait, says Patricia Di Bartolo, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Smith College who researches perfectionism. An example of an "adaptive" perfectionist could be Paris Geller, Rory Gilmore's frenemy on Gilmore Girls. She's intensely self-motivated and organized as she strives for excellence, but she also generally accepts when she misses the mark (she did, after all, eventually get over being rejected from Harvard). A maladaptive perfectionist, on the other hand, can accept nothing other than flawlessness, and it can spiral into a life-altering problem.
Below, we break down the signs that perfectionism may be hurting you more than helping:
You take procrastination to the extreme
In extreme cases of maladaptive perfectionism, they take procrastination to a level way beyond binge-watching Stranger Things when you should be writing a term paper, says DiBartolo. “They’re so worried about being perfect and doing well they almost become paralyzed,” says DiBartolo. They'll spend hours slaving over an assignment only to miss the deadline because nothing they create meets the impossible standards they've set for themselves. “They engage in this vicious cycle where nothing is ever good enough, so they never make any forward movement.”
You feel anxious in social settings
Those with overly perfectionistic tendencies don’t get typical butterflies before a presentation or outing with new friends—they feel full-fledged anxiety. DiBartolo says perfectionists stray from being in the center of attention in social settings because they fear doing something peers will consider dumb or stupid.
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“It’s a relational issue and always has to do with how a perfectionistic person sees themselves in relation to others,” says Thomas S. Greenspon, PhD, a psychologist, marriage and family therapist, and author of Moving Past Perfect. “There’s a feeling that ‘If I’m not outstanding at what I do, then I’m not going to be loved as much.’”
If you’re constantly on edge when socializing and criticize your every move, it could be a sign you’re overly perfectionistic.
You avoid trying new things
If you make excuses to skip the trendy workout class your co-workers rave about or refuse to take violin lessons even though you’re dying to learn, it could be a sign your fear of failure is preventing you from experiencing life to its fullest. “They’ll avoid new learning situations because they can’t do something out of the gate, even if there’s obviously a learning curve that comes with it,” says DiBartolo.
You have trouble forming long-term relationships
A need to be perfect can sabotage relationships with friends, family, romantic partners, and even colleagues. At the office, group projects are particularly problematic; since they take total control out of your hands, your need to micromanage others could prevent you from forming meaningful bonds. The same idea transfers to romantic relationships. “Perfectionists tend to need to be right all of the time, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for an intimate partner with a different point of view or perspective,” says Greenspon.”
Acting generally detached from others could be another sign your perfectionism has a negative impact on your life. Keeping your distance from people who may criticize you prevents the possibility of dealing with shame that comes with being reminded that you’re not perfect.
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You keep your self-doubts private
If you hesitate to tell others, especially your close friends or family, about your mistakes or worries, it could mean you’re afraid to reveal you’re flawed.
“Perfectionists keep their mistakes really close to themselves,” says DiBartolo. “They’re not getting any good information about the fact that we all fail. We all have moments when we make mistakes, but their lack of sharing makes perfectionists feel like they’re the only ones.”
In order to recognize there’s no need to be perfect, it’s important to see that no one can reach true perfectionism. “Experimenting with making mistakes in thoughtful ways can shake up those perfectionistic beliefs,” says DiBartolo. She recommends getting involved in activities you’re aware you’re not good at, then recognizing your lack of perfectionism doesn’t define you as a total failure.
DiBartolo also suggests participating in cognitive behavioral therapy in order to challenge your perfectionist thinking. “Is it true that I’ll get fired if I messed up a part of my presentation today? Is making one mistake the same thing as entirely failing? Cognitive therapy works to switch that mindset,” she says.