If you’re wondering if you’re a perfectionist, I’d say there’s a good chance you are. Or at least have perfectionist tendencies. I know I do. After all, who doesn’t want to be perfect? Who doesn’t want to be the one who gets the gold stars, the big wins, and the admiration?
Perfectionism is one of those traits people typically see as a positive, but underneath it is often self-defeating thoughts and emotions, low self-esteem, stress, and chronic anxiety, which actually make it harder to achieve your goals. And, if I’m being honest here, it makes it harder to function in general.
As a health coach, I see this all the time, and I know what it feels like. The procrastination, the all-or-nothing thinking, the unrealistic standards. My clients get so wrapped up in trying to “get it right,” that it defeats the whole purpose of working with someone to get their health on track in the first place.
What is Perfectionism Anyway?
Psychologists describe perfectionism as the tendency to demand an extremely high or even flawless level of performance (from yourself or others) — significantly more than what’s required from the situation. It’s the unhealthy belief that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. No pressure, right?
Being motivated is great. But there’s a big difference between healthy motivation and aiming for perfection. Healthy motivation looks like self-focus, self-compassion, and having a growth mindset, while perfection is more about people-pleasing, fear, and control.
Got These Perfectionist Traits?
The issue with perfectionism, and the reason it’s important to know if you have any of these characteristics, is that, despite their intentions, perfectionists actually end up achieving less and stressing out more than those with healthy motivation. Their goal is to be perfect, yet they’re self-sabotaging every step of the way.
Common traits of perfectionists:
Fear of Failure
Have a Hard Time Receiving Compliments
Trouble Celebrating Successes
Need Outside Validation
So, What Causes Perfectionism?
Researchers say it stems from the belief that your self-worth is based on your accomplishments. If you got rewarded for getting straight A’s on your report card, scoring the winning goal, having flawless dance recitals, or being a “good kid” and cleaning your plate — and felt compelled to continue achieving so that you’d keep receiving outside validation, congratulations, you’re probably a perfectionist.
Perfectionism can also be learned by growing up around perfectionist parents. Maybe you used to hear them openly criticize themselves, or second-guess their choices, or blame themselves for your missteps. If so, it’s easy to see how you could pick up those behaviours yourself.
Sound like you? If so, you’re not alone. Perfectionism has increased by 33% over the past 30 years and it’s taking a huge toll on mental health. In this study published by the American Psychological Association, researchers analyzed data from 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students from 1989 to 2016. Participants answered questions in the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (FMPS), a 35- question self-reported measure with four sub-scales of perfectionism:1
Concern over mistakes and doubts about actions
Excessive concern with parents’ expectations and evaluation
Excessively high personal standards
Concern with precision, order, and organization
More recent generations reported significantly higher scores. Turns out, social media is at least partially responsible for that rise. College students (and pretty much everyone on the planet) are feeling the pressure to perfect themselves in comparison to others, which leads to body and financial dissatisfaction, having unattainable education and career goals, and a myriad of other issues all centered around lack.
It’s not just mental health that takes a hit either. In addition to clinical depression, anxiety, burnout, and eating disorders, perfectionists have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease due to self-imposed stress and perceived failure.2, 3 They also tend to have a harder time recovering from heart attacks and managing auto-immune conditions.4
How to Overcome a Perfectionist Mindset
When I work with clients, my goal is to help them get out of their own heads — and out of their own way — so they can easily and effortlessly reach their goals. These strategies do just that. Follow along and see if you can start to tame some of your perfectionist tendencies.
Check Your Motivations. When you think about something you want to achieve, ask yourself why you want to achieve it. Do you want to lose the weight/get the promotion/crush the workout because it makes you feel good to do it? Or because you like being perceived as someone who’s accomplished, successful, and smashing every goal they put out there? There’s no wrong answer here, but getting clear on the intentions behind your actions will help you know if you’re doing it for internal or external validation.
Label Your Fear. Harvard psychologist, Susan David plays an icebreaker party game with the execs she coaches where everyone writes their biggest fear about themselves on a sticky note, slaps it on their chest, and goes about the party introducing themselves. It could be anything from their personal or professional life, like, “I’m a fraud,” “I’m boring,” or “I’m unlovable.” As a result, the fear that once had so much power over them is tamed. They see their thought as just that — a thought. And because they’re dealing with it in a lighthearted way, it starts to lose its power over them.Try this: Write down 3-5 of the biggest fears you have about yourself or your abilities, then choose the one you feel is your biggest obstacle. You don’t have to wear it sticky-note-style, just notice how it’s hold on you changes once it’s out of your head and on to paper.
Don’t Compare. Social media is pretty much a highlight reel of people’s lives. That said, it’s hard to avoid the comparison mindset when you see others out loving life, while you’re struggling just to get out of bed in the morning. The easiest way to stop this behaviour is to delete social media apps from your phone. Still feel the need to scroll? Practice being more mindful when you do, being aware that these are curated moments and that everyone — even the people with a million followers — have plenty of imperfections too.
Set Realistic Goals. Don’t set the bar so high that most of the things you do feel like you’re failing. Just because you can run PR your marathon time, work 20-hour days, and eat paleo 100% of the time, doesn’t mean you should. Instead, learn how to set realistic goals for yourself.Try this: Think about an important goal you have. It could be in your career, your health, your family, doesn’t matter. Then, using the SMART goal technique, break it down into specific, attainable, measurable, relevant, and timely steps. Not only does this make it easier to reach your goal, it boosts your confidence.
Give Yourself Credit. You’re already keeping a journal, right? Great. Take a few minutes to celebrate all of the progress, the positive actions, and choices you’ve made each day — without diminishing them or dismissing them as luck or unproductive. Regularly giving yourself praise, and allowing yourself to receive it, helps build your self-validation muscle.
Loosen Your Grip. If the voice in your head constantly reminds you that you’re not doing it right, chances are, it’s telling you when others aren’t doing it right too. Even if you don’t act on them, these irrational thoughts can get in the way of relationships, and really, your own sanity. Notice when you get overly uptight about a friend or co-worker being five minutes late to a meeting or when your spouse has imperfect form on their squats. Then, start to challenge your perfectionist thoughts.Try this: Ask yourself if the situation is really as irritating as it feels, if it matters if they do their exercises slightly wrong, and if you need to control everything about it. If the answer is yes, get curious about why that is.
Are You a Perfectionist?
Demanding a flawless performance from yourself or others, getting bogged down in the details, and believing wholeheartedly that anything less than perfect is unacceptable is not only extremely draining, it can lead to serious mental, emotional, and physical ramifications, from anxiety, depression, and burnout to heart disease and high blood pressure.
If you feel like perfectionism is starting to mess with your health, break the cycle by following these six strategies or reach out to a qualified behaviour change specialist — you can find some great ones here.
Check your motivations
Label your fear
Set realistic goals
Give yourself credit
Loosen your grip
Are you a perfectionist? Tell me about your experience with it below.
About the Author
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.