People often confuse high achieving behavior with perfectionistic behavior. High achievers are dedicated, determined individuals who have a strong desire to accomplish something that’s important to them. Their achievements are not about what others will think of them or a fear of failure, it’s to gain personal gratification from their success.
People who deem themselves perfectionists, on the other hand, are not driven by the pursuit of perfection, they’re driven by the avoidance of failure. True perfectionists aren’t really trying to be perfect, they are avoiding not being good enough. This avoidance dictates much of their behavior, and it’s linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even suicide.
Paul Hewitt, PhD and psychologist Gordon Flett are two of the most respected researchers of perfectionistic behavior. Those who feel social pressure to achieve perfection tend to feel that the better they do, the better they are expected to do. And so, the search for absolute perfection never ends.
Are you a high achiever or a perfectionist? Here are seven signs that your pursuit of perfection may put you at risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and in very extreme cases, suicidal thinking.
1. Despite your search for perfection, you never feel perfect.
Dr. Hewitt uses this example of a college student, also one of his patients, viewed his success. The student was convinced he needed to get an A+ in a particular course, so he studied hard and aced the class. However, he became even more depressed and suicidal than he was prior to the end of semester. “He proceeded to tell me that the A+ was just a demonstration of how much of a failure he was,” says Hewitt. The student argued that if he were perfect, he wouldn’t have had to work so hard to get the A+.
2. You cannot accept and celebrate your success.
It’s never good enough, so you get sucked so far into the details that you become frustrated–even angry. Even when your goal is complete and results in success, you believe you could and should have done it better.
Perfectionists don’t acknowledge their wins to the extent of feeling the joy and satisfaction of a job well done. Instead, they find the flaws in how they (or others) executed the project. There is always something wrong, even though the outcome is exactly what they wanted.
3. You don’t allow yourself any mistakes.
While an individual with a healthy mindset allows for mistakes, an extreme perfectionist doesn’t forgive their mistakes. Instead of viewing them as a learning opportunity, you criticize and put pressure on yourself for not predicting a less than perfect outcome. You feel inadequate, even stupid, and these feelings preoccupy your mind, often to the point of losing all productivity.
4. You put up a front, insisting everything is perfect.
Perfectionists are intensely afraid of being judged by others. They often want the outside world to view them, not only as being perfect, but making perfection easy. Even when your world is a disaster zone, you put up a front to lead others to think it’s all just perfect.
5. You avoid taking on challenges that may cause you to fail.
Perfectionists like to stick with what they know. If you’re presented with an opportunity that means you’ll have to develop more skills or move outside of your comfort zone, you’re likely to turn it down. You’re afraid that you’re not smart enough to tackle a new learning curve and will be seen as a failure or let someone down.
6. You believe that your likeability is linked to being perfect.
Personality and positive qualities like, honesty, compassion, humor, etc., aren’t what perfectionists believe people will like about them. It’s not enough to be a wonderful person, you must be a perfectly wonderful person. You don’t allow others to see your flaws and most likely you talk about your achievements, but never your failures.
7. Your life doesn’t satisfy you.
Perfectionists cope well in a low-stress environment, so as long as nothing challenges you you’re fine. When was the last time you weren’t challenged by life? Right, because nothing is perfect. When problems occur or work and home seem unsettled to you, it presents a problem. Anxiety often increases, which offers the illusion that nothing is going well, thereby decreasing life satisfaction.
8. You struggle with getting things done on time.
Since perfection is an illusion, the pursuit of it is never complete–and neither are your projects. You may get things done, but you are in a constant battle with the decisions and motivation to complete certain things. The “what ifs” and expectation of a negative consequence or result preoccupies you and the pressure can be overwhelming.
Can you overcome the seemingly never-ending pursuit of perfection?
I believe there’s nothing we can’t overcome if we put our minds to it. If you occasionally insist on perfection, but it causes you excess stress, pay attention to these situations. I suggest journaling about them to find the common link. The awareness alone will help you get to the core and figure out what it’s really all about. Observe how others accept themselves, flaws and all, and assign yourself a few virtual mentors to follow. Learning how successful people built upon their failures, instead of hiding from them, will help get things into perspective.
Hewitt and Flett say that perfectionism is a risk factor for psychological disorders–not a disorder itself. If it leads to depression, anxiety, or other exhausting mental states, therapy can help. Yes, you can develop a healthy mindset and make life much easier and more rewarding for yourself.