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How being a perfectionist is killing your spirit

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Cute blond woman applying lipstick in a car perfectionist applying lipstick, sad woman, stressed

Image: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

Perfectionists have extremely high standards. This is considered good and admirable… until you have to work with one.

But do you know what’s worse than working with a perfectionist? Being one. (I’ve had experience with both, I should know.)

High standards alone do not make a perfectionist*; it’s also the all or nothing attitude, including ideas about self-worth.

We’re encouraged to aim for perfection as a worthwhile goal, especially women. Your grades, projects, hobbies, looks, health, career, family – hell, your enunciation and vocal patterns – have to be perfect. But surprise! You’re human after all, and perfectionism is killing your spirit. Here’s how.

You beat yourself up

Nothing is ever good enough for perfectionists, especially themselves. Performance and achievements aren’t only about how hard you worked or your experience, but who you are. Mistakes are signs of failure instead of a normal part of the learning process. You expect love, affection, and respect to be conditional on how you perform even mundane tasks.

Even when you do well and other people say so, you’re uneasy. You don’t really believe you’ve done as well as you could have, whether that means doing something faster, more elaborately, or simply with less effort.

That kind of mentality takes its toll. Perfectionism is linked with depression, excessive anxiety, and potentially eating disorders.

Your life becomes about other people’s expectations

Are you actually enjoying choosing the right PowerPoint font or are you freaking out because your manager might judge you for choosing Arial over Helvetica?

The idea that someone may think you’re average or incompetent is enough to put a pit of anxiety in your stomach. Anything less than “amazing” is negative feedback, and you hone in on any speck of criticism. Perversely, no amount of positive feedback is enough because perfectionism isn’t about doing well occasionally or after hard work; it’s about being perfect always.

You use so much mental and emotional energy worrying about other people’s opinions and approval that you might lose sight of what actually makes you happy. What do you get from busting your butt all the time for things that don’t really matter to you?

Self-sabotage

You’d think with all those high standards perfectionists would be reaching for the stars and have great work ethic, but this isn’t usually the case. Perfectionists have a tendency to inefficiently redo work, micromanage, avoid risks, and even hide mistakes.

If you base your self-worth on always performing well, you don’t aim for goals that have a high learning curve because you might make a mistake and die of shame. The problem, of course, is that for all your impossible striving you don’t challenge yourself to learn or succeed differently by setting smaller goals, or goals that might be out of your comfort-zone and therefore help you grow.

On top of that, perfection is not a reachable standard anyway! Even when you set smaller goals, you set yourself up for disappointment by expecting perfect execution. Not only do you limit your possibilities, you’re rarely satisfied with what you do achieve.

Alienating those close to you

Let’s be honest here: perfectionism is about you, not what other people’s needs are.

You need constant reassurance that those close to you still care about you. Your mood changes based on how each day is graded. You may demand that your boyfriend, friends, and family also measure up to your exacting standards and do so in a specific way. You’ve probably discounted sincere praise to someone’s face, e.g. “Oh, it wasn’t great at all. I should’ve done XYZ instead.”

Your perfectionism exhausts you, but it’s exhausting others around you, too. You’re demanding their emotional resources to manage your feelings by either reassuring you or by trying to meet your impossible standards.

Good relationships with loved ones help people thrive, but they’re hard to cultivate if every conversation is about your (or their) shortcomings.

So what do you do if your perfectionism is depressing you and burning you out?

Try failing a lot and seeing how survivable it is, like fall-on-your-face failing. (Go to an open mic night or karaoke; they’re fun, and you’ll be in good company.) Embrace your mistakes, even the big ones, as opportunities to learn and grow. Be selective with your perfectionist tendencies, choosing to spend time on the things that will ultimately bring you satisfaction. In the end, it’s about practicing some self-compassion and realizing your worth beyond what’s immediately visible, and way beyond the idea of perfection.

*The discussion of perfectionism in the world of psychology usually focuses on adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists, as well as different types of perfectionism and the motivations behind the behavior. That’s beyond the scope of this piece, which is about the perfectionism that makes you miserable.