Oh, the life of the perfectionist - the daily struggle with all of the emotions and messages that accompany this trait, and the impacts on performance can be an extreme weight to carry.
Confession time: I (April) am a perfectionist. Even now as I work on this post, I am aware of so many different messages: Do you really know enough about this to write something that lots of people will read? Shouldn't you have some research to put in here? Is this really what you want to write about? Maybe you should just stop for a while - think about it, make sure this is what you want to write. What if (Heaven forbid!) you write something that isn't exactly right?! What if no one cares what you write? Maybe you should just not write a post today. If something goes wrong, that means you are a fraud and a fake and no one will ever believe anything you have to say again. Also, everyone around you will be so ashamed because you messed up. You could lose EVERYTHING!
Seriously - welcome to the internal world of the perfectionist.
Perfectionism on it's own is not a mental health diagnosis. However, it can be associated with many different mental health issues - eating disorders, many different types of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, different personality disorders, for example. It can interfere with self-worth, self-esteem, relationships, parenting, and work performance.
How to recognize a perfectionist:
Extremely high (even impossible or unreasonable) expectations of themselves or others -- The perfectionist often feels that she should perform in an outstanding way in all tasks - even when that is an unreasonable expectation (like when she has no training or experience at all in that area). These high expectations and standards are often automatic - the perfectionist may not even realize that these thoughts and messages are running through her mind, but the expectations are there.
Extreme all-or-nothing, black-and white guidelines for determining success or failure -- The perfectionist will either be the best at what he does, or a totally worthless failure. These standards are also applied to others. There is no gray in the world of the perfectionist - everything that is not total, overwhelming, outstanding success is shameful, worthless failure. There is very little grace for "trying" or "doing my best" in the world of the perfectionist.
Overreaction -- The perfectionist sees the world as a place where everything that is not perfect is useless. Therefore, everything must be perfect ... always. If not, there will be severe consequences because anything that is not perfect is failure. Because of this thinking, she sees every small task or choice as something that is a much bigger deal than it actually is. Because every task or choice carries these tremendous potential consequences, every choice is critical, and mistakes can destroy everything and everyone around her. So, often, her reactions are way out of proportion with the actual situation.
Procrastinating and being unproductive -- Because there is so much pressure and weight on every decision and task in the world of the perfectionist, he often puts off tasks until the last minute, or sometimes doesn't complete them at all. The need to complete things perfectly can be crippling, and gets in the way of approaching tasks or decisions in a logical, organized manner.
Hypersensitivity, guilt, and shame -- Without even realizing it, the thought patterns of the perfectionist are constantly looking for imperfection. If you look through buzzfeed posts or google images, you will find all kinds of images that drive perfectionists crazy; that's because the striving for perfection never turns off. If things are good, they can always be better; if they are excellent, there is still room for improvement. Nothing is ever good enough. With the thought that nothing is ever good enough comes guilt and shame because the perfectionist was - yet again - not able to do things perfectly.
If you are a perfectionist:
1. Admit you are a perfectionist, and that it is okay (not some deep, dark flaw that completely devalues you are a person and everything you have ever done or will do!).
2. Begin to be aware of the thoughts that come across your mind and how you are affected by them. In counseling, we call this mindfulness. An important element of mindfulness is acceptance - these thoughts aren't inherently good or bad, they just are.
3. As you become aware of your thoughts, begin to look at them more closely. Is this thought rational? If you asked someone else their opinion of the situation what would they say? Does this thought carry guilt and shame attached to it, or any other unproductive emotions?
4. If you perfectionistic thoughts and tendencies are getting in the way of your day-to-day life, consider getting help from a counselor as you work through these thoughts and feelings. Counselors are skilled at creating safe spaces for you to do this work, helping you see blind spots you may be missing, offering understanding and insight, and helping you find tools and techniques that will be helpful for you on your journey.
If you love (or live with, or work with) a perfectionist:
1. GRACE and SPACE -- Once you understand that this is the way the perfectionist thinks and operates, and that you are not going to change it anytime soon, you learn to give them some grace in her thought processes, and space to work through things on her own time.
2. Communicate empathy and acceptance for him as a person, regardless of his performance -- The entire self-worth of the perfectionist is wrapped up in performance, or in others' perception of his performance. Begin showing genuine appreciation for the perfectionist as a person, not based on work or accomplishments. Pull out personality characteristics that are special to you, or that you admire when you speak with them. Also, understand what it must be like to live in the mind of the perfectionist, and don't demand immediate change. Instead, just be with him on his journey.
3. AFTER YOU HAVE DONE THE FIRST 2 SUGGESTIONS, you may have enough credibility with the perfectionist to begin walking her journey with her - helping challenge her thoughts and tendencies, providing a safe space for her to express her feelings and practice reacting in different ways than those that come most naturally to her.
The mind of the perfectionist is a very challenging place to live. However, it is very possible to challenge and change those thought patterns, moving toward wellness and wholeness, and a more healthy you.
Never stop growing.