The Root of Perfectionism (and How to Overcome it)

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Imagine you're a kid and you receive an A- on an assignment.  It's not the A+ you wanted, so you beat yourself up, obsessing over what you could have done better. The next time around, you earn an A, but it's still not good enough — you want that A+. Finally, you get an A+, but instead of celebrating it, you're upset you didn't earn the grade for the first two assignments as well. 
This is an example of perfectionism — it stands in the way of the good. To a perfectionist, good is never good enough, and better should always be best.
If this sounds like something you struggle with, we've defined perfectionism, explored its causes and effects and provided reduction strategies to support you in shedding the habit.

Perfectionism, defined

Unlike excellence, which is the state of surpassing one's goals through measure or performance, perfectionism is the perception that a goal is unmet if not accomplished with absolute perfection. A perfectionist chases the lofty goal of meeting such high internal standards with most or all of their tasks.
A perfectionist might constantly judge others or themselves for not demonstrating ideal behaviors or reaching impractical results, which minimizes the strides that have been made toward the desired outcome. This negative reinforcement can lead to psychological disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety, but it is not a disorder in itself. 

What causes perfectionism?

For some, perfectionism is a response to actual or internalized trauma, and acts as a coping mechanism — to an extent. When a perfectionist overthinks or over-plans, they're preparing themselves for every possible outcome of a situation, in an effort to make themselves less susceptible to negative impact. 

The irony, however, is that critical self-evaluation and negative thoughts begin to occupy the space between the perfectionist and their unrealistic expectations, disadvantaging the individual, anyway. 
A person may also develop perfectionist habits in order to veil painfully difficult emotions, too. By obsessing over details and possibilities or overextending themselves in a task, a perfectionist is able to distract themselves — or at least mitigate — the sadness that comes from the root of their painful emotions.

3 forms of perfectionism

Perfectionism is tridimensional. Read about the common three forms below:

1. Self-oriented

Self-oriented perfectionism is when an individual holds themselves to unrealistic standards in an effort to become an unattainable version of themselves. Self-oriented perfectionists often undervalue their own work product, or general performance, which can lead to a deep dislike of who they actually are.

2. Other-oriented 

Perfectionism that is other-oriented is centered on the performance of other people. Someone who demonstrates other-oriented perfectionism expects other people to meet the impossible or impractical standards they've imposed on them.

3. Socially-prescribed 

When perfectionism is socially-prescribed, it means the perfectionist expects perfection from others in a way that benefits themselves. This differs from other-oriented perfectionism because this form is focused on what the perfectionist expects to get out of it, not what the other person should. 

7 signs you might be a perfectionist

Below are seven signs you might be a perfectionist, in no particular order.

1. You think and act in extremes.

Thinking in absolutes, acting in extremes or having an all-or-nothing mindset are all perfectionist traits, though, not everyone who thinks and acts this way is a perfectionist.

2. You fixate on your mistakes or weaknesses.

In this case, you may be magnifying your mistakes and believing them to be excessively important, and minimizing your strengths and achievements as less so.

3. You're flaw-focused.

Similar to the second point, you focus on — and may even obsess over — fixing your flaws rather than focusing on what makes you great and unique.

4. You rarely delegate tasks out of your distrust of others.

You believe that you're the best person to get the job done correctly, and if the task were to be delegated elsewhere, you'll need to step in and fix it afterward. 

5. You procrastinate or avoid situations altogether if you assume you won't excel. 

Your fear of failure delays or prevents you from starting a task at all. If you don't think you'll excel at the job, then you just won't do it.

6. Your self-esteem is fueled by your accomplishments and recognition. 

You need validation from others to feel good about your accomplishments, but once that transaction's been completed, you move on quickly to the next goal. 

7. You struggle to complete projects because you constantly judge and revise as you create.

This may look like creating, judging and chipping away at your work simultaneously. With this approach, the process for completing a task is slowed and minimized. 

Consequences of perfectionism

Perfectionism functions to stand in the way of the good. Here are some of its negative effects:
  • In trying the be the best, you fail to be your best.
  • You may depress or punish yourself for not meeting your goals.
  • Constructive criticism may be taken more personally and defensively. 
  • You set yourself up to achieve less and stress more than other high-achievers.
  • You set your goals out of reach which falters your plans and attitude toward reaching them.
  • Your concerns with meeting a goal and reaching perfect results block you from basking in your growth and success.
  • Your self-esteem is lowered because you prioritize what didn't go right — no matter the size or consequence — over what did.

How to reduce perfectionism

If you think you may be a perfectionist, you can try the following three strategies to wean yourself out of the habit.

Cue your emotional awareness.

Emotional relief is key when it comes to eliminating a perfectionist mindset.  Start by identifying your emotional triggers: maybe you dislike when someone else gets credit for your work and you feel the need to do more for praise. Or, maybe you avoid escalating your concerns after a sticky situation with a prior boss, and would prefer to take matters into your own hands. 
But instead of reacting to your emotional triggers, observe them first. Think of this as a moving meditation. Yes, what is happening is happening, but no you don't need to exert or overextend yourself in response. Give yourself some space from the situation; you'll be surprised with how differently you might feel when you take a deliberate step back. Then, when you're ready, respond accordingly.

Come up with alternative coping strategies.

Once you've identified your triggers, create some go-to strategies that you know will ease your emotional woes. To draw from the examples above, you can try making others aware of what you're doing before and as you're doing it. That way, when it's time to be acknowledged for it, credit will be given where it's due. You could also cultivate a relationship with your boss, in general, which you can lean on when things go south. 

Allow yourself to experiment.

You're not going to break your perfectionist habits overnight, but you can get a hold of them by redirecting your thoughts and setting realistic goals for yourself. Start by considering why you want to reach a goal —  to reach a feeling? An outcome? To set yourself up for something else? — then create a realistic form of measure to match.
Also, keep in mind, that with every step forward, you may take some steps back out of habit or frustration. This is natural and expected. You're reconditioning yourself, and the process is far from linear
At the end of the day, your peace of mind matters more than perfection. It's also the only guarantee of the two. And while practice won't make perfect, it will make much, much better.

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Stephanie Nieves is the SEO & Editorial Associate on the Fairygodboss team. Her words can also be found on MediumPayScale and The Muse.