Perfectionism can be defined as a character trait marked by an intense desire and excessive worry about living life the “right” way, often accompanied by a preoccupation with external accomplishments. Like any other character trait, it lies on a spectrum, ranging from minor perfectionistic tendencies to Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). Perfectionism can affect people in different ways, and the presentation of this trait varies. Typically, individuals with perfectionistic tendencies tend to experience inflexibility in their internal and external experiences (such as thoughts, emotions, and behaviors). They often have a strong moral compass, set standards/expectations that might be challenging or impossible to attain, and can be critical in their self-assessment and judgments of others.
When I first bring up the topic of perfectionism with clients, I typically get some pushback. They may say, “Who me? No way. I am messy, disorganized, and the furthest from perfect.” If an individual has characteristics of perfectionism, this does not mean they think they are perfect. In actuality, it is quite the opposite. Perfectionists experience emotions of shame, guilt, anxiety, or anger due to a deep-rooted belief of not being “enough.” Often, perfectionism can lead to issues in functioning and feeling overwhelmed or “paralyzed” by self-imposed demands and pressure to prove to themselves and others that they are worthy.
Perfectionism can emerge due to various factors, including parenting, trauma, and/or societal influences, all of which I will delve into in a separate blog post. The first step in working on perfectionism is understanding the fundamental elements of the trait. I have conceptualized perfectionism through three lenses, which I will unpack in this post: control, self-worth, and the need for connection.
Whenever I work with someone struggling with perfectionism, I assess their rigidity and need for control in these three areas: cognitions, emotions, and behaviors. A strong need for control and focusing on living life the “right” way tends to underlie this rigidity. When perfectionists feel “out of control,” this leads to uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety. Perfectionism allows us to develop a false sense of control in an unpredictable and uncertain world.
Cognitions: In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) pioneered by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. and Aaron Beck, M.D., there is a set of categories called cognitive distortions that allow clinicians to understand and label different types of maladaptive thinking. Three of the most frequent cognitive distortions I observe in perfectionism are “should” statements, all-or-nothing (i.e., black-and-white) thinking, and labeling. Cognitive rigidity stems from both “should” statements and all-or-nothing thinking. Another way to think about “should” statements is rule-bound thinking. Examples of “should” statements include:
“I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes during my work presentation.”
“I should get 100% on that test tomorrow.”
“Other people should wash their hands before they eat.”
Other sneaky “should” statements include “must, could, ought, and have tos. These ideas lead us to live a life governed by rules and high standards of living. What typically occurs is that both ourselves and others end up breaking these rules because of our inherent imperfections, resulting in self-criticism and criticism of others. Violating these rules also leads to uncomfortable emotions such as shame, guilt, or frustration towards ourselves and anger and frustration towards others.
All-or-nothing, often called “black and white” thinking, means that we tend to look at things in two separate and extreme categories – for perfectionists, this is typically “right or wrong” or “good or bad.” These thinking patterns can also lead to all-or-nothing behaviors, which I will get to later in this section. When we think in all-or-nothing ways, we become rigid around what we believe is “right or wrong.” Examples of all-or-nothing thinking are:
“I need to say all the right things at this party.”
“I’m a bad person.”
“He was wrong for behaving that way yesterday.”
Individuals with perfectionism tend to fixate on doing things the “right” way. This typically stems from the belief that if I live my life the “right” way, I can protect myself – I have control. However, similarly to “should” statements, doing everything the “right” way is impossible. Moreover, feeling like we are doing something “wrong” leads to anxiety, guilt, shame, or frustration. In some cases, certain individuals may take these thought patterns to an extreme, resulting in a particularly strong moral compass or a sense of righteousness within their belief system. This rigidity also leads to “truth owning,” meaning that we hold firmly to what we believe is the “right” way to think, feel, or behave and others are “wrong,” which creates interpersonal difficulties.
These cognitive distortions connect to another maladaptive way of thinking: labeling. This cognitive distortion is precisely how it sounds; we put a label on ourselves or others. Examples of labeling sound like this:
“I bombed that presentation. I am a failure.”
“I’m an idiot for missing that turn.”
“She is stupid for believing that.”
Labeling can be hurtful to both ourselves and other people. How we speak about ourselves and others significantly impacts our sense of self, mood, and relationships with others. We also tend to engage in labeling when we use “should” statements or rule-bound thinking. People often think these ways of thinking motivate us or guide our behavior, but this is not the case. Cognitive distortions will negatively impact our emotions and behaviors. We will feel less connected to life if we dictate our path based on rigidity within perfectionism rather than our values. We will also feel more uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, shame, guilt, and anger.
Emotions: Throughout my clinical work, I have also noticed individuals with perfectionism have difficulty with changes in their mood and strive to be in a “perfect” state of being. First, I believe this stems from “should” statements. For example, I “should” always feel excited with my partner, or I “shouldn’t” feel anxious right now. Second, it relates to the concept I stated earlier of feeling “out of control.” When we experience uncomfortable emotions (e.g., anxiety, sadness, tiredness, etc.), we may fear losing control if the emotion continues. To prevent feeling “out of control,” there is a fixation on how one feels, resulting in hypervigilance of uncomfortable emotions. Some individuals may also fear being “stuck” in certain mood states. For example, some clients I work with believe that if they feel sad, they will lose control and slip into a deep depression.
If changes in mood start to occur, one might engage in avoidance strategies (e.g., suppression, overworking, excessive exercise) to try and control and “get rid” of the emotion. For some clients, this can also lead to OCD symptoms (e.g., compulsively checking emotions), which I will discuss in more detail in a separate post. When we are unwilling to feel emotions, our brain picks them up as a threat, so they may feel more intense than if we let them run their course naturally. A helpful metaphor is thinking of a soda bottle; if we tightly close it and shake it, it will eventually explode. When we hold in our emotions tightly, they will come up in other ways that impact our lives. The goals to address this in therapy are to:
- Be willing to experience whatever emotion comes up and recognize we cannot control our emotions, only our responses to them.
- Use effective coping strategies to process and regulate our emotions.
Behavior: It is always important to remember that our cognitions and emotions are also connected to our behavior. One of the most common ways control can appear in behaviors is within our body, such as orthorexia. This is defined as one obsessively thinking about and planning healthy eating, categorizing food as “good or bad,” and may be attached to a strong desire towards a specific unrealistic body image. Many people may also be tied to a rigid exercise schedule or obsess about a particular type of exercise (e.g., CrossFit, marathons). At times, this can result in more extreme behaviors that fall into the category of eating disorders (e.g., Anorexia, Bulimia). When our thoughts and emotions feel “out of control,” our bodies are something we can control.
Some individuals also fixate on having their physical space the “right” way and find control through cleaning and organization. When things are not neat or in their “right” place, they feel anxious, overwhelmed, or find it hard to relax or start a task before fixing it. It is important to note that perfectionism can also lead to disorganization and indecisiveness. Many clients I work with start to feel overwhelmed by this intense need for things to be “right” or “perfect” to feel in control. This results in avoiding or giving up completely, ultimately leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of being out of control.
Lastly, perfectionists will also seek control within their life path through schooling, careers, etc. This may look like fixating on a specific school/career path and becoming anxious or distressed if life does not go according to “plan” or appear to be the “right” way. This may look like an intense desire to get a 4.0, leading to a fixation on professional accomplishments such as promotions or financial success. Many also have difficulty delegating in school projects or on teams at work or school. This comes from a fear of letting go of control and difficulty trusting that other people will do it the “right” way, often leading to issues in team settings.
The thing about perfectionism is that nothing ever feels like it is “enough.” Some thoughts are, “After this promotion, I’ll finally be satisfied. or “Once I become the top salesperson, I’ll feel happy.” Then, they get to this achievement and still feel the same way – dissatisfied. So they keep reaching for more, setting bigger goals or higher expectations. What is important to realize is that nothing will ever feel “enough” unless we separate our achievements from the second underpinning of perfectionism – self-worth.
Underneath these needs for high achievements and perfectionistic standards is typically a sense of inadequacy, insecurity, and a deep-rooted belief of not being good “enough.” One may believe they can only prove their worth through accomplishments and achievements. They can hide their perceived flaws and attempt to control how people view them. Perfectionism is a protective shield one can hide behind, hoping that others don’t see how they honestly think of themselves.
Fear of Failure: First, I want to distinguish between high and unrealistic standards. Of course, having high standards, striving for excellence, and having career goals are healthy. However, within high standards, there is room for both personal growth and mistakes along the way. This differs from unrealistic standards, meaning anything short of perfect is not accepted. There is a fixation on mistakes and shortcomings paired with frustration and anger towards the self when they happen. An example of unrealistic standards may sound like:
“I can’t believe I made a mistake during the game. I’m so stupid.”
“I’m terrible at my job since I didn’t get into the top 1% of sales.”
“I looked like an idiot trying to snowboard. I’m never doing it again.”
Unrealistic standards are also connected to another pattern I see in perfectionists – all-or-nothing behaviors. Many times, clients will feel the need to do something 100% or not do it at all. In their eyes, if they do not achieve perfection, they have ultimately failed. Their worst nightmare of being a failure has come true, and their negative thoughts about themselves are reinforced. Many will feel like a failure or are not doing “enough” if they don’t believe they are giving their all. It is important to remember that no one can give 100% all the time. I will often tell my clients that we are not robots but humans. Our effort will depend on our mood, energy levels, and motivation, among other daily factors. Some days, we can only give 20%, which may feel like a “wasted” day to a perfectionist. This is often why many perfectionists experience burnout throughout their life. If you are constantly pushing yourself to your max, it is unavoidable that you will crash – making perfectionism unsustainable.
Procrastination: When perfectionists reach the point of burnout, they carry their low self-worth and exhaustion from the pressure they have placed on themselves. So now everything feels overwhelming and unreachable, even the most minor tasks, which leads to avoidance and procrastination. However, now these beliefs (e.g., I’m a failure, I’m not doing enough) are being reinforced, and they are stuck in the cycle of perfectionism:
Many of my clients come to me when they are already caught in the cycle of perfectionism, which is why it is hard for them to believe they have this trait. They will discuss how they were functional, successful, and overachievers but now feel paralyzed, lost, or stuck in life. The goal in my work with clients is to tackle these core beliefs and shift towards more flexible and realistic goals to get out of this cycle. When we start challenging perfectionistic ideals, it changes how we relate to ourselves and others, bringing up the last core underlying feature of perfectionism – the need for connection.
Need for Connection
Human connections are one of our most fundamental needs, starting at birth. When I talk about connection, this is an all-encompassing term; I mean a need for love, acceptance, understanding, and belonging. Brene Brown, a leading figure in the world of perfectionism, discusses that if we want to feel loved and have a sense of belonging, we need to believe that we are worthy of receiving it. When we think we are not “enough,” this reflects in how we connect with others. When we don’t believe we are worthy as a person, we try to prove that we are through accomplishments. Perfectionists believe that if I show people how much I can accomplish or how “perfect” I can be, they will love and accept me.
Impression Management: When our goal for connection is paired with believing that we do not deserve this connection, we become hyper-focused on how others perceive us. This also relates to the theme of control because we will start over controlling our behavior to fit what we think people want. For example, if you are conversing with your friend, you may be focused on the words you’re saying so you can have the “perfect” conversation by saying all of the “right” things they want to hear. We believe that if we do this, our friend will like and accept us. We are trying to “control the narrative” of the interaction, hence the term – “impression management.”
The belief is that if we can act how people want us to operate, they will accept us. However, many clients I work with report high anxiety levels in social interactions due to the immense pressure they place on themselves to say the “right” thing. This is because they fear saying the “wrong” thing will lead to rejection. Moreover, if we constantly think about how we “should” talk and act to gain approval from others, we start to lose touch with our authentic selves. Many individuals I work with have difficulty connecting with their identity. They constantly try to fit into a mold of what they think people want instead of being who they truly are. This also causes inauthentic connections with other people, making getting our needs met and having deep, meaningful relationships much more challenging.
Boundaries & People-Pleasing: Another way to ensure that we feel connected to others is by pushing past our boundaries to meet others’ needs rather than our own. The thought pattern here is, “If I give and give to others, they will accept and love me.” Another common term you may have heard before is “people-pleasing,” meaning there is a lack of boundaries and a focus on pleasing the other person rather than meeting our own needs. This often allows perfectionists to feel safe in relationships (e.g., friendships, family, romantic) because they believe they will not rejected or abandoned if the other person is pleased with them. Again, this stems from the belief that people will only stay based on what we give them, not who we are. Interpersonal and individual difficulties come from poor boundary setting, including unhealthy/toxic relationships, codependence, burnout, and resentment.
Many clients I work with encounter two different problems with boundaries
- What are my needs/boundaries?
- Fear of the consequences of setting a boundary
If we have been focused on meeting the needs of others throughout our lives, it may be challenging to get in touch with what we need ourselves. There also tends to be a fear of setting the boundary itself because we believe, “If I set this boundary, they will be disappointed and leave me.” There may also be a fear of the potential conflict that can arise from setting boundaries. We hope most people will respect our boundaries, but this does not mean we will never receive pushback or get into disagreements when we set them. I always tell my clients that we are not responsible for the emotional reaction of the other person who doesn’t accept our boundaries. Their emotions are theirs to regulate; it is not on you to do this. Of course, avoiding setting boundaries and continuing people-pleasing is much easier than uncomfortable conversations. However, healthy relationships require setting boundaries, communicating needs, and possessing the skills to navigate and resolve conflict respectfully.
The “Fixer” or “Peacemaker” – Another interpersonal pattern I notice within perfectionism is the need to control or “fix” other people’s emotions. Since most perfectionists are uncomfortable with emotions, when other people express feelings, this also makes them uncomfortable. They will then try to fix the problem, help them regulate, or even minimize the other person’s emotions. Again, it is important to remember that this does not come from a place of malice but rather a need for everyone to be “okay.” This typically stems from growing up in an environment of emotional chaos where family members (e.g., caregiver or sibling) had difficulty regulating their emotions. Your role in the family dynamic was to help “fix” their emotions. We then learn that if I can help others regulate, I can feel regulated, too. However, this can cause interpersonal difficulties because the person on the receiving end may feel invalidated by not having room to express their emotions. Remember, most people want to be heard and understood; they don’t want their problems fixed unless they ask for help.
Attachment – We cannot discuss the need for connection and interpersonal relationships without mentioning the topic of attachment. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth shifted the field of psychology and focused on understanding how relationships impact our functioning through what they coined – attachment styles. Our attachment style develops when we are young and is determined by whether our caregivers did or did not meet our needs. There is secure attachment (i.e., parents consistently met our needs) and insecure attachment: anxious (i.e., caregivers inconsistently met our needs), avoidant (i.e., caregivers neglected our needs). Attachment theory is critical when understanding how we relate to others in adult relationships. People with secure attachment will typically be able to have healthy and trusting relationships as adults. Those with anxious and avoidant styles fear abandonment, but this fear will present differently depending on the type of insecure style.
Many perfectionists I work with also have insecure attachment styles. Those with an anxious style will engage in more people-pleasing behaviors and push past their boundaries. Individuals with this style focus on giving everything to their partner so they will not be abandoned. On the other end of the spectrum is avoidant attachment. These individuals also fear abandonment but cope by not getting close enough to people to let this happen. Perfectionists with this attachment style will often be highly critical of others and set unrealistic standards within their relationship. This allows individuals to keep their distance from others and hold the belief, “Why would I let someone close to me if they will disappoint me anyway.” Understanding your attachment style and how it connects to perfectionism helps us develop healthier relationships. We all want to feel connected to others, but having low self-worth and a deep fear of rejection or abandonment creates difficulties within our relationships, ultimately reinforcing these beliefs and emotions.
I understand you may be finishing this blog post and feel overwhelmed and think there is much to “work on” or “fix” within yourself. I promise that is not the intention of this article, but rather quite the opposite. My goal is to allow you to feel seen and understood while helping you realize you are NOT broken and do NOT need to be fixed. I say this not only as a Clinical Psychologist specializing in perfectionism but also as someone who personally experiences and works on this trait within herself. Remember, perfectionism is a trait, not a symptom. We cannot get “rid” of this part of our personality. However, I believe perfectionism can be used to our advantage after we understand:
- Why did this trait of perfectionism develop?
- Target the unhelpful aspects of perfectionism through therapeutic interventions.
The objectives of therapy are to develop more flexible ways of thinking, be able to tolerate uncomfortable emotions, and, most importantly, create a compassionate relationship with yourself. When we learn to be less critical and more loving of our messy, imperfect selves, we realize our worth is much more than what we achieve. This shift in how we view ourselves will also reflect in our relationships. Ultimately, the goal of receiving love and acceptance from others is to do this within yourself.