Blog: The never-ending search for perfection

Blog: The never-ending search for perfection

Perfectionists aspire to achieve without ever making a mistake.

They are always on alert for “perceived” (not necessarily “real”) imperfections in themselves. Perfectionists are motivated by self-doubt and fears of ridicule, disapproval and rejection. In contrast, high achievers pursue excellence in healthy ways, taking genuine pleasure in the process of achieving high standards, and are able to accept that making mistakes and risking failure are part of the achievement process and part of being human.

Causes and characteristics of perfectionism include:

  1. Fear of failure and rejection, which can be paralyzing.
  2. Fear of success. Success raises the bar for success in the future. This is exhausting.
  3. Low self-esteem. Perfectionists believe that perfection will lead to approval and love.
  4. All-or-nothing thinking. Perfectionists see experiences in the extreme – as success or failure — with no middle ground.   Seeking perfection all of the time is a set-up for failure; nobody is perfect all of the time. Perfectionists believe that, if something cannot be done perfectly, it is not worth doing.
  5. Extreme determination. Perfectionists focus only on the results of the effort and are unable to enjoy the process of producing the achievement.  The perfectionist’s pursuit of the goal becomes his/her downfall because it often results in overwhelming anxiety, which interferes with performance efforts.

Costs of perfectionism include:

  1. Low self-esteem. Perfectionists never feel good enough and feel like failures.
  2. Gloominess, depression. Constant efforts to achieve unrealistic goals results in negativity, feeling discouraged, even becoming depressed.
  3. Guilt and shame about perceived failures.
  4. Rigidity and lack of spontaneity.
  5. Fears of failure may result in procrastination, low motivation, failure to act
  6. Difficulties in relationships. The perfectionist’s rigid expectations and need for approval can blind him/her to others’ views and needs.
  7. Compulsive behaviors. Needing extreme order in life can cause excessive focus on details and rules.

Addictive behaviors.  Perfectionists, who never feel good enough, may self-medicate with alcohol/other drugs, food, shopping, sex, gambling, or other high-risk behaviors.

Eating disorders.  Perfectionism is a central issue for many people with eating disorders.

Follow these tips to decrease perfectionism and increase emotional health:

  • Set realistic, achievable standards and goals; think in terms of “good enough”
  • Enjoy the process, not just the outcome, of pursing your goals
  • Learn healthy anxiety/fear management skills
  • View mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Accept constructive feedback as a learning process
  • Remember that you are human, and no human is perfect

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About the Author

Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn
Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn

Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Advocate Medical Group – Behavioral Health in Normal, Ill. She has helped her clients through a variety of issues for more than 20 years.