Perfectionism: The Pitfalls of Unhealthy Performance Expectations

Doing things perfectly as a goal and collective mindset may drive individuals and organizations to some measure of success. While not inherently a harmful trait, unchecked perfectionism can actually sabotage our well-being and overall life progression not to mention our happiness. Keep reading to understand the problem that is perfectionism.

Perfectionism: The Pitfalls of Unhealthy Performance Expectations

Doing things perfectly as a goal and collective mindset may drive individuals and organizations to some measure of success. While not inherently a harmful trait, unchecked perfectionism can actually sabotage our well-being and overall life progression not to mention our happiness.

Learning to recognize where to cut our losses can be vital in grasping the situation before it takes control of us.

Keep reading to understand the problem that is perfectionism.

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality trait that can push people to try to achieve a flawless or ideal definition of perfection in some or all aspects of life. It is often characterized by traits that make one overly self-critical and in turn, can make people very critical of others.

However, this ideal is often an illusion and a neverending battle for something unattainable. As psychologist J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., states:

“Perfectionism has nothing to do with actually trying to perfect anything. It is about illusion, the desire to look good.”

Perfectionism begins at various starting points divided into three broad categories:

Self-oriented perfectionism - Self-oriented perfectionists set high standards for themselves.  

Other-oriented perfectionism - Other-oriented perfectionists have unrealistic expectations of others and can be overly critical of the people in their life.

Socially-prescribed perfectionism - Socially-prescribed perfectionists believe that society has unrealistic expectations of them. They’re often worried others will reject them if they don’t live up to these expectations.

These three types of perfectionist personalities are distinguished based on the source of their motivations.

Although some perfectionist subtypes may be more maladaptive than others, they can all affect our lives positively and negatively.

"Perfectionism is the enemy of happiness. Embrace being perfectly imperfect. Learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself, you’ll be happier. We make mistakes because we are imperfect. Learn from your mistakes, forgive yourself, and keep moving forward." — Roy T. Bennett (The Light in the Heart)

How Does a Perfectionist Behave?

Photo: Brett Jordan

Perfectionists are constantly striving for perfectionism and it can often create a feeling of overwhelm that nothing is ever good enough and that you can never meet expectations.

If you make a habit of the following, you could be a perfectionist:

- You are too self-critical and might beat yourself up when making mistakes because might set yourself up with unrealistic standards you can't meet.

- You procrastinate often and don't start because you can't figure out how to do it perfectly - also known as the perfection, procrastinate, paralysis cycle.

- You always focus on the result and the next goal without giving yourself credit for what you've already accomplished.

- You try hard to please others because you need the validation of having done a good job to feel good about yourself. You're always worrying if it's good enough for them.

- Your life motto is “all or nothing” and you never feel good enough about any measure of success because you have to keep doing more..

-You might have poor coping mechanisms for failure and might get extremely angry at yourself or others or feel completely defeated, extremely sad, or upset when you can't achieve perfection.

Is Perfectionism a Learned Trait?

Psychology experts report that perfectionism is a learned trait that may directly result from parental expectations and criticism in childhood. If you had lots of stress from your parents to do well and you interpreted that as not feeling worthy unless you were perfect, it can result in perfectionism. Alternately, if your parents didn't praise you or pay much attention to you except for your achievements, you could have also maybe learned that in order to receive acceptance and validation, you had to try to be perfect, or even better than your siblings or peers.

"Perfectionism is the unparalleled defense for emotionally abandoned children. The existential unattainability of perfection saves the child from giving up, unless or until, scant success forces him to retreat into the depression of a dissociative disorder, or launches him hyperactively into an incipient conduct disorder. Perfectionism also provides a sense of meaning and direction for the powerless and unsupported child. In the guise of self-control, striving to be perfect offers a simulacrum of a sense of control. Self-control is also safer to pursue because abandoning parents typically reserve their severest punishment for children who are vocal about their negligence." — Pete Walker

Pressure to achieve in early life significantly affects a child’s overall development. Children can sometimes internalize that their sense of self depends on their accomplishments, and they maintain this mentality well into adulthood.

The Dangers of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can keep you from enjoying what you have and living life to the fullest. In the long run, it may even hinder us from our dream path. 

"Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame." — Brené Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection)

This personality trait can be dangerous in the following ways:

You Might Miss Out on Life

If we constantly try to one-up ourselves or others, we can lose a sense of what’s truly important in life. We can get so lost in thinking of future successes and fail to notice the present moment. You might end up being so competitive that you can't enjoy simple things anymore because it's always about needing to be better than someone else, have the highest grave, have the best record, etc.

“If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Also, you might have an 'all or nothing' attitude and not start something you really want to do because you will never become good enough at it. For example, maybe you want to learn the piano, study Italian, or learn to dance salsa, but you only have one day a week to do it. If you're a perfectionist, you might decide that since you don't have 100% of the time to invest in it, it's not worth doing, even if it's something you're really interested in learning.

Lack of Productivity

While perfectionists might strive to overachieve, they don’t necessarily achieve higher productivity. This is because it can be easy to get stuck trying to perfect each task. This can lead to paralysis and time wasting trying to fix something over and over and over.

"Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis." — Brené Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection)

While a certain level of perfectionism is great to have when working on a project, it may keep us from actually finishing things! This can lead to missed deadlines because the task is never finished and it can cause strain amongst teams or keep you from improving your circumstances. Procrastination is the biggest killer of productivity and perfectionism can be a big culprit.

No Support System

Sometimes, perfectionists would like to portray an ideal version of themselves to everyone, including those close to them. This can unfortunately put a lot of strain on relationships becuase they might not want to ask for help for fear of appearing like they can't handle it or that they can't really do it perfectly.

"You know, the whole thing about perfectionism. The perfectionism is very dangerous. Because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results's actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is. And there were a couple of years where I really struggled with that." — David Foster Wallace

The slow build-up of such pressure can trigger anxiety and and even depression, leading to a vicious cycle of negative thinking. Sometimes, perfectionist tendencies can keep us from seeking support and lead to harmful thoughts and extreme isolation.

Deterioration of Physical and Mental Health

Trying to be perfect is a stressful ordeal, one that can make people physically sick, mentally and emotionally unstable, and of course, also burnout.

As Anne Wilson Schaef puts it, “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”

Perfectionism can put us at risk of mental illnesses, anxiety disorders, and even eating disorders. It can even weaken our immune systems as a result of pushing ourselves to the absolute limits without allowing ourselves to stop and take a break.

Risk Aversion

Perfectionists don’t want to put themselves in high-risk situations. Even simple things like learning how to play a musical instrument or paint or go to the gym becomes an ordeal that is impossible to pursue, all because of the crippling fear of failure and self-judgement. This can lead to an attitude of 'why bother?'..

The perfectionist mindset can keep us from taking risks and exploring new challenges in life because we can't start being good at them there is always a learning curve and a perfectionist might.

Ways to Get Over Perfectionistic Tendencies

EFT Tapping for overcoming Perfectionism

Photo: Andrea Hunt

Perfectionism is often a result and cause of past learned behaviors, emotional blocks, and inabiltity to create new patterns.

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a one-stop solution to tackling the cycle of negative thoughts and behaviors that can improve the mindset patterns that lead to your perfectionism.

Along with transformational life coaching, EFT Tapping can manage stress, rewire the brain to release old programming and get past old situations, and also teach us how to build a better mindset—one that pushes us to achieve our goals in emotionally healthy and sustainable ways.

Set Realistic Goals

Maintaining too-high standards is a good way to set yourself up for failure and disappointment. Instead, try to set realistic and achievable goals.

If you still tend toward perfectionism, break down your goals into small steps. Give yourself enough time to achieve them and enjoy the learning process.

Practice Asking For Help

Asking for help can be difficult for perfectionists since not everyone can people match their intense, all-or-nothing energy. However, seeking help is a great way to limit perfectionist mindsets and behaviors.

Getting help can bring you closer to people and help you achieve goals faster than if we tackle them alone. It’s also a great way to boost our mood and mental wellness.

Re-Evaluate Unhelpful, Limiting Beliefs About Yourself

Reframing our understanding of life and the efforts we put into work, family, and relationships is vital. It’s essential to explore what beliefs enable us and what holds us back. Work on self-compassion, learning authentic confidence, and loving yourself.

Confront Feelings You’ve Suppressed

Our sense of self and self-worth shouldn’t rely solely on our accomplishments. It’s important to let go of the idea that being perfect is the only way to deserve good things in life. Where is this need to be perfect coming from? What habits might we need to unlearn in order to create different, better habits and more helpful thinking patterns and a different mindset? 

To avoid the dangers of perfectionism, we must figure out the root cause and tackle it straight on - this will help us to evolve our mindset and create resilience in different situations.

Cultivate a Self-Forgiving Mindset

A self-forgiveness mindset is also synonymous with a self-compassionate mindset.

It starts with letting go of anger, guilt, shame, and sadness over past mistakes. This involves practicing radical kindness towards yourself.

Here’s a quote by Tina Fey to sum it all up: “Do your hardest to be at the top of your game, improve every joke you can until the last possible second, then let it go. Don’t overthink it. It will never be perfect. Perfection is overrated.”

In Conclusion

Perfectionism can manifest itself in different actions and behaviors, but it primarily lies in one’s way of thinking. It will be difficult to solve the problem without deep self-reflection and radical changes. A strategic approach to dealing with the effects of perfectionism and tackling its root cause is critical. They are essential steps toward healing. Are you ready to overcome your perfectionism with transformational life coaching and EFT Tapping? 

Schedule a free discovery call with me today to get started! :)


ANDREA HUNT - Online Transformational Life Coach & EFT Tapping Practitioner based in Munich, Germany

I'm an accredited transformational life coach from Animas Centre for Coaching UK  and a member of the International Coaching Federation. I'm also a Level 2 practitioner in EFT Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique) and a member of AEFTP (Association of Emotional Freedom Technique Professionals).

If you're not sure where to start transforming your life, you can download my free ebook on How to Start Your Personal Growth Journey.

Are you ready to change your life, let go of old beliefs, empower yourself for a mindset shift to move forward? Mark Batterson says: You're always one decision away from a totally different life.

If you're interested in booking a free 15 minute discovery call for transformational life coaching, EFT Tapping or checking out my services page click here.

header image: Luis Villasmil.

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