Being a perfectionist sounds like a good trait. Some people even brag about it. It sounds as though you care about your work and the things that you do. It sounds like you care about the way people regard you, about your reputation. It sounds as though you have integrity and a sense of ethical responsibility. It sounds like everyone should have some of this perfectionism, doesn’t it?

The problem with being a perfectionist is that ‘some’ perfection isn’t going to cut it. If you identify as a perfectionist, you need a 100% score. Does that sound realistic? When you ‘are’ a perfectionist, broadly speaking, in everything that you are, it’s a load of pressure, because it is unattainable. Life is not perfect. You can be perfect sometimes, at some things. Some people even manage to be perfect a lot of the time at certain things. This is fine if your perfectionism is due to seniority or skills accrued over time for example, but if you are expecting to be perfect at everything you do, you are giving yourself a lot of stress.

Some issues with being a perfectionist can be seen in dieting and body image. Anorexia and bulimia are good examples where controlling weight gets out of hand, and no matter how much weight is lost, its never enough. Being a gym junkie on the other hand can also fit this psychology as one’s self-worth is centred on ideas of physical perfection.

Not being able to cope with mess or with things out of place can also create frustration in a person who identifies as being a perfectionist where everything needs to be in its place for that person to feel as though they have some control over their life. If it’s not perfect, ‘it’s a fail’ is the underlying belief here.

How Did I Get to Being a Perfectionist?

There are many reasons how you might have come to the mindset of being a perfectionist, but one of the more common is a lack of self-worth, or low self-esteem. What is it that you are trying to prove? You have to ask yourself, how would I feel differently if I wasn’t a perfectionist? Most people would say, ‘relaxed’, or something similar. Then you would have to ask yourself, why can’t I relax? The answer might be something like, ‘because I’m not good enough’.

These may sound like generalisations but I have had hundreds of clients to support the theme. ‘Not good enough’ is a blanket term. When you break it down some clients will specify, not smart enough, not pretty enough, different to the others, don’t fit in etc. Of course its not always that straightforward, but after cutting through the illusions around perfectionism, that’s what usually appears at the heart of it. Some reasons why a client might feel not good enough include:

  • Growing up next to a standout sibling
  • Being made to feel embarrassed
  • Being made to feel guilty
  • Taking responsibility for problems that are out of your control
  • Being treated poorly by family members

Most of these conditions are long-term and originate in your childhood. However they can start later in life too if you experience partners or bosses/colleagues who put you down, for example. The reason why this is less common is that mostly as an adult, if your childhood was safe and loving, you are already robust emotionally and now you have a logical mind to counter any oncoming abuse too. You can dismiss it more easily, walk away and view the situation as ‘their issue” (which it is).

However if your childhood was not safe or loving, your frame of reference is already geared towards emotional and/or physical abuse, guilt etc. Then of course you try to make up for it by being a perfectionist and proving to yourself, and the rest of the world, that you are OK. But unless you believe this on an unconscious level, you will never satisfy the need to prove your worth.

Being a perfectionist (as opposed to doing something extremely well), is a form of self-punishment. It’s a trap because life is not perfect. If you would like help with overcoming the underlying beliefs that support this trap, we can help 🙂