From an early age, we’re told, “Practice makes perfect.”
But is perfect really what we should be aiming for?
The truth is, perfection is an illusion.
Flawlessness is subjective and dependent on your unique perception.
But that doesn’t stop some of us from striving for it, sometimes to the detriment of our health and relationships.
If you, or someone you know displays these 9 traits, they’re probably a perfectionist.
1. Their standards are ridiculously high.
It’s no bad thing to set the bar high and to strive to do the best in all you do.
After all, why settle for less?
But perfection, by definition, is an unattainable goal. And setting yourself unattainable goals means you are doomed to fail.
Ironically, failure is a perfectionist’s number one fear.
So, self-oriented perfectionists (those who hold themselves to these unrealistic ideals) end up in a perpetual vicious cycle of wanting to be perfect but feeling like a failure.
Then there are other-oriented perfectionists who impose their strict standards on others. They often have a rigid view of how things should be in their life and relationships, and they expect their friends, family, and co-workers to adhere to this model.
There is a final group of perfectionists (socially prescribed) who perceive that other people (e.g., parents, school, colleagues, and so on) are forcing these unrealistic expectations upon them.
People can be one or a mix of these three types of perfectionists, but whichever they are, impossibly high standards are a key trait and may infiltrate every aspect of their lives.
2. They focus on the outcome, not the effort.
Perfectionists tend to be results-oriented, meaning they only care about the final measure of success or failure.
This blind focus on the outcome means they miss out on the satisfaction derived from the process itself.
They tend to be driven by their fear of failure, rather than by the enjoyment of working hard at a task, and the experience they can gain from it.
As a result, they avoid mistakes at all costs and aren’t open to the opportunities for growth and learning that present themselves along the way.
3. They are over-critical.
When you’ve set yourself up to fail with unrealistic expectations, it’s easy to find fault with your performance.
And perfectionists are their own worst critics.
They overanalyze every aspect of their work and pick it apart.
Even when they achieve perfection in other people’s eyes, they can’t accept it.
For example, a perfectionist wins first prize in a dance competition or receives a perfect score from the judges, but they still aren’t satisfied with the performance because it wasn’t as good as when they did it in rehearsal.
For other-orientated perfectionists, the criticism doesn’t end with them, as they apply their exacting standards to those around them too.
This can lead to tension, defensiveness, and strained relationships at work and at home.
4. They struggle to take constructive criticism from others.
A perfectionist can criticize themselves all day long, but when faced with useful feedback from others, they simply can’t take it on board.
Ironically, despite their desire to achieve the best, they can’t listen to advice that would help them improve their performance.
Instead, they see the criticism as a personal attack.
To prevent the feelings of failure they dread, they may become outwardly defensive and criticize back, or they may inwardly stew on it and come up with reasons to disregard the useful advice they received.
Eventually friends, family, and co-workers may stop giving constructive criticism for fear of rocking the boat.
In the end, this inability to accept and utilize feedback prevents the perfectionist from reaching the one thing they strive for.
5. They are control freaks.
Because their standards are so high, perfectionists believe they are the only person who can do the job properly.
They fear that no one else will do it to their standards, so they won’t let them try.
They struggle to delegate tasks and end up taking on more than they can handle.
If they do have to relinquish control—for example, they are going on vacation and must hand over to a co-worker for the week—they give excessively detailed instructions on how they would do the task.
They spend their vacation obsessing about what could be going wrong, or worse, they check in with their co-workers when they should be enjoying time off.
When they get back, they don’t accept the completed task at face value, but check through it for mistakes, and provide unwanted feedback to their co-workers.
Perfectionists can also find it hard to work in a team because they think other people don’t take the task as seriously as they do, or they believe other people’s standards aren’t as high as theirs.
They fear other people may cause them to fail, and as a result, they can’t enjoy the process of completing a group task.
6. They are always comparing themselves to others.
… and rarely feel they measure up.
You may think that perfectionists, with their high expectations of themselves and others, have high self-esteem.
But it’s actually the opposite.
Because perfectionists are always comparing themselves to others and are often berating themselves for falling short of their own unrealistic ideals, they feel inadequate.
With their critical nature and controlling behavior, they can also push away friends, family, and co-workers, which leaves them isolated and lonely and makes them feel like they are failing at relationships.
This lowers self-esteem further, and so they continue to view themselves unfavorably when compared to others.
7. They are overthinkers.
When your biggest fear is making a mistake, you tend to spend a lot of time overanalyzing your every move.
Perfectionists don’t have the luxury of trusting their instincts and making bold decisions.
They need to explore every possible outcome of a scenario to ensure they take the action that will lead them to success.
To them, failure and setbacks are not something to learn from, but something to fear and dread.
And they try to avoid them at all costs.
So, they end up spending a lot of time paralyzed in a state of indecision and procrastination.
Which of course, paradoxically, only serves to prevent them from achieving the perfection they are striving for.
8. They can’t let go.
Perfectionists are usually ruminators.
When they finally commit to a course of action, and it doesn’t result in the faultless performance they had hoped for, they can’t let it go.
They go over it again and again internally, re-hashing where they went wrong, and berating themselves for their perceived failure.
This internal self-flagellation doesn’t serve to teach them an important lesson for the future though, it just reinforces their biggest fear: failure.
They may seek out others on whom to offload their disappointment. However, the reassurances of friends and family are disregarded by the perfectionist as they perceive their standards as too low to understand the failure.
9. They struggle with stress and anxiety.
If you’ve got this far, it’s probably easy to see why the final trait of a perfectionist would be feelings of anxiety and stress.
The unrelenting fear of failure, inability to relinquish control, strained relationships, and constant self-berating and overthinking are clearly not a recipe for a happy and healthy mind.
Depending on the degree of perfectionism, these feelings of stress and anxiety can be mild and manageable or overwhelming and all-consuming.
Perfectionist tendencies are often seen in people with anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders.
There’s nothing wrong with aiming high.
But aiming high is quite different from aiming for perfection.
High achievers share the same desire to work hard and achieve their goals as perfectionists, but they aren’t driven by fear like perfectionists.
They enjoy the process and are willing to make mistakes and learn from them along the way, rather than just obsess about the outcome.
Perfectionism is not always unhealthy though. As with all things, it’s the dose and frequency of something that determines the effect it has.
Perhaps you are a high achiever with a few perfectionist tendencies that help you challenge yourself and perform better.
But if you’ve noticed these traits of perfectionists in yourself and they are hindering rather than helping, and you are no longer focusing on enjoying the journey as well as the destination, it may be time to reframe your thinking.
Want to rid yourself (or just tone down) your perfectionist tendencies?
Speak to a therapist to get you where you want to be. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can help you to identify where your perfectionism comes from and provide tailored advice to help you address the relevant thoughts as they appear.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
Many perfectionsists balk at the idea of therapy because it suggests an imperfection in their mind. But seeking professional help is nothing to be ashamed of. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.