Are you cursed by perfectionism? Do you feel like you always need to be your best self? Or find yourself piling on the pressure to meet unreasonable standards? You may be falling into the trap of perfectionism.

The shadow of perfectionism can feel like a constant dark cloud on the horizon – no matter what you do, it’s never quite good enough. By your own standards, anyway! Let's take a look at the different types of perfectionism, where it might come from, and how to stop perfectionism from taking over your life.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is an overwhelming need and attempt to do something without mistakes. No matter how much heavy-lifting you do (in some cases, literally), your goals will always be out of reach because you're often moving the benchmarks higher and higher.

Is perfectionism a personality trait? Yes, perfectionism is a personality trait and can be a typical aspect of some mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Extreme perfectionists are more likely to be diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

What are the signs of a perfectionist?

You may be sitting there thinking, “But my house is a mess, how can I be a perfectionist?” Perfectionism can show up in different ways for different people. For some it’s fitness and for others it’s work. Some possible recognisable perfectionist tendencies are:

  • self-criticism
  • impossible or unrealistic standards
  • fear of failing
  • procrastination
  • all-or-nothing thinking

What is the main cause of perfectionism?

So, why am I a perfectionist? Well, each individual will write a different story, but often perfectionists grow up in a house where the ‘end result’ is praised rather than the process or the effort involved. This can look like ongoing criticisms and nitpicking, or simply being overpraised for being talented and getting things ‘right’. The result? That person can take on board the subconscious message that their self-worth is tied up with being perfect. This can lead to a constant striving for more and for better.

Counsellor Amy Fokkens (Dip.Couns. MBACP) talks about understanding where perfectionism comes from in her article, Perfectionism: Why your best never feels good enough, “Did you have an experience in your past where you gave all of yourself to someone or something and it failed?”

Maybe take some time to reflect on the subtle and not-so-subtle messages from your upbringing. What part did ‘success’ play in your family dynamics and how was it measured?

Counselling directory member, Billie Dunlevy (MBACP Accred) talks about what causes a person to be a perfectionist in her article, Perfectionism: A flawed badge of honour in modern society.

If as a child you were overly praised for achievements and certain behaviours, you could have really taken that to heart, resulting in a belief such as, "I am my achievements and my worth is determined by how well I achieve them."

Types of perfectionism

There are different types of perfectionism and these may be labelled differently. The three common ones are:

  • Self-oriented – self-critical and needing to achieve to feel a sense of self-worth.
  • Socially prescribed – feel the pressure from others to be perfect.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists – likely to set unrealistic standards for others to match up to.

One type of self-oriented perfectionism is emotional perfectionism.

What is emotional perfectionism?

Meet emotional perfectionism – a more recently talked about and not-so-healthy personality trait that leaves you always craving that elusive seventh heaven state. And a friend of yours already, perhaps?

You only need to have a quick doom scroll on social media to get caught in the comparison trap of ‘everyone else is happier than me’. Propelled by a need to be ‘happier’, the portrayal of ‘having it all’ and being successful is now the peacock’s tail of many gushy social media posts.

What happened to being average at certain things? And, more to the point, what happened to acknowledging sadness and overwhelm? The need to cope or the desire to be seen as coping is going against the natural process of failing, and being human – to cut straight to the chase!

Boundaries and relationships life coach, Helen Snape talks about why it’s important to not lose sight of our real emotions in her article Understanding your emotions.

Our feelings are part of our truths, and understanding them can give us the power to meet our needs.

Overlooking true feelings in the pursuit of happiness can leave you in a state of perfectionism burnout. And doing it under the guise of ‘wellness culture’ can feel like an even more debilitating paradox.

So what’s the answer? Spending time with your true experiences is a great first step. That may look like acknowledging how you feel day by day, moment by moment, and not looking at your life through the lens of other people’s censored posts.

What are some other ways to reduce perfectionism?

3 ways to overcome perfectionism

1. Find a hobby

Finding a hobby that works for you, but that doesn’t have an end goal, is a great first step. This is key here! We can all fall into the trap of perfectionism by looking for extracurricular activities that mean we’ll improve another aspect of our lives – often work. But, having something to focus on without needing to be good at it or needing to get to a final destination, can be a great way to overcome perfectionism.

In his article, The pain of perfectionism, Chris Mounsher, PG Dip, MBACP (Accred) talks about the stress of having too much and too little to do.

Many perfectionists struggle with having nothing to do, as achieving something has become the way in which they prove themselves, a solid and reliable indicator that they’re OK. Sometimes having nothing to do can be as stressful as having too much to do.

2. Set realistic goals

Try setting attainable goals within a doable and inviting environment and timeframe. One way to do this is to take regular breaks and chop down large tasks into manageable sections. This can help you to avoid the wheel of procrastination and the feeling overwhelm. And most importantly, try not to think you can conquer perfectionism without mistakes – like anything it may feel up and down, especially at the beginning.

3. Counselling

When perfectionism tips too far, it may be time to seek professional help. Chasing the rainbow can take its toll on your mental health, so talking with a qualified professional can be a way to allow your truest thoughts and feelings to be heard, whilst introducing actionable steps to move past unhealthy behaviours.

It’s OK to want to achieve and be focused but not at the cost of your mental health. Personally, I still (at the age of 42) struggle with the balance of wanting to be successful in my endeavours (often throwing myself into the deep end in the hope to grow and evolve) and holding myself to unreasonable standards. A journey I expect to always be on…