The Hidden Signs of Perfectionism—and How to Tell If It's Holding You Back

Behold: the pros and pitfalls of being a perfectionist, according to psychologists.


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When you picture a perfectionist, fictional characters like Election’s Tracy Flick, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope, and Glee’s Rachel Berry probably come to mind: straight-laced, buttoned-up, have-it-all-together overachievers who accept and expect nothing less than the best from themselves. In fact, this pop culture version of perfectionism makes the performance-driven mindset seem appealing—if not like an outright superpower to strive for. 

And though there’s nothing wrong with aiming high, there’s more to perfectionism than the portrayal we see in movies and on TV. To start with, holding yourself to unrealistic standards can quickly become debilitating, wreaking havoc on your mental health. That’s right: Perfectionist tendencies can be both positive and negative. 

Not only that, but perfectionists—and their behaviors—don’t all look the same. This means that if someone doesn’t fit society’s narrow, rigid understanding of what a perfectionist is and does, it may make it more difficult for them to identify the source of their stress and anxiety, and then make the adjustments necessary to improve the quality of their life. Here’s what to know about perfectionism, including the surprising signs that you might be a secret perfectionist. 

What is perfectionism? 

Beyond an obsession with detail and the never-ending hustle to be The Best, perfectionism starts internally, and is actually about self-worth, says Peggy Loo, PhD, a licensed psychologist and the director of the Manhattan Therapy Collective.

“More specifically, the root of unhealthy perfectionism is an overly dependent belief that your self-worth is tied to your achievement,” she explains. “If you carry that reasoning forward, the more you strive and achieve, the more you’re proving your worth.” 

The result? Perfectionists aim exceptionally high to establish a strong sense of self, and convince themselves that if they’re perfect, then they’re valuable and good enough. And here, Loo says, is where we often see an unrelenting focus on overachieving. 

“So much good has come out of extraordinarily successful humans, and we should feel proud of a job well-done,” Loo explains. “However, unhealthy perfectionism becomes a trap when your sense of personal value comes solely from achieving, and results in setting unrealistic, impossible standards. It creates an unending cycle of striving and inevitable failure, which motivates more striving, and so on.”

Constant fixation on your mistakes and how others will evaluate your performance, coupled with your perception that you’re always falling short, become overwhelming, says Ali Greco, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of user experience at SonderMind. “The internal experience of needing to be perfect can be very destructive.”

Everyday Signs of Perfectionism

The traits and behaviors of perfectionists run the gamut from those generally considered an asset to others that are less than desirable—and even harmful. And because pop culture and other aspects of society have conditioned us to have a narrow view of what a perfectionist looks like, many people don’t recognize when their own behaviors fall into that category. 

Again, striving to do your best isn’t a bad thing! But since perfectionism can be an underlying cause of stress or anxiety, it can be eye-opening to become familiar with some of the less-acknowledged signs of perfectionism—whether they’re positive, negative, or neutral—to uncover the possible root of the issues you’re dealing with.

Here are some of the surprising signs you’re a perfectionist, according to Loo and Greco:

  • Spending an inordinate amount of time on tasks.
  • Procrastinating often. (The logic: “If I don't get started, I won't fail.”) 
  • Reviewing your work repeatedly.
  • Avoiding risks, and being hesitant to try new things (like learning new skills or hobbies), if there's any chance you'll make a mistake.
  • Being a workaholic.
  • Being unable to celebrate small wins—or any wins at all.
  • All-or-nothing thinking with no room for middle ground. (“I must do it all, and perfectly, and if I don’t, it's not worth it, or I’ve failed.”)
  • Having a profound fear of mediocrity—despite the fact that most people are great at some things and average at most others.
  • Your mood and sense of self worth rising and falling according to your perceived successes or failures.
  • Being extremely critical of yourself—often without realizing it.
  • Becoming quickly dysregulated emotionally if you don't approach something perfectly.
  • Replaying exposed flaws or mistakes.
  • Losing perspective easily. 
  • Assuming taking a break or resting feels unacceptable.
  • Feeling exhausted or burned out.
  • Frequently overcommitting at work, in relationships, or in personal goals. 
  • Constantly chasing the next accomplishment, rather than being present.
  • Having difficulty receiving compliments, and/or it makes you feel uncomfortable.

How to Make Your Perfectionism a Tool, Not a Trap

01 of 07

Recognize and reframe thoughts related to perfectionism.

Because some of the traits traditionally associated with perfectionism tend to be viewed as assets, it can be difficult to recognize when concerns about performance are coming from a negative headspace. According to Greco, some examples of maladaptive thinking—or beliefs that are unsupported, negatively biased, inaccurate, and rigid—include: “I should be better,” “I am terrible and they are all better than I am,” and “No matter how much time I spend on this it will never be good enough.”

When you notice yourself having thoughts like those, Greco recommends challenging them, and replacing them with rational, adaptive thoughts like: “This could be better,” “That wasn’t quite right,” or “I need to spend more time to get this to a better place.”

Even if these sound like basically the same thoughts, remember how powerful language and tone can be. The way you speak to yourself and approach challenges really matters.

02 of 07

Pay attention to any perfectionism triggers.

Often, these are things that are really important to you. But “if you find you’re being perfectionistic about frivolous things—the perfect parking spot, the perfect amount of peanut butter on the sandwich you’re making—those are signals that you’re looking for control, and are possibly feeding your inner critic,” Greco says.

03 of 07

Set realistic, flexible, and smaller expectations.

This doesn't mean you don't get to aim high, Loo reassures. But instead of stressing yourself out by trying to achieve one massive goal—and do it flawlessly—understand that you’re more likely to succeed if you set multiple smaller and more attainable goals. This diffuses the undue pressure that perfectionism creates, and makes individual to-dos seem more concrete and doable. 

“If you're not sure what a realistic expectation is, ask around, or imagine what would be fair to expect from a good friend in your shoes,” she says. “Often with perfectionists in therapy, I ask them to halve their stated goal—and quite frequently, the goal is still quite high and could be adjusted [further].”

04 of 07

Broaden your definitions of success and failure.

Start by celebrating smaller gains. “When you meet a smaller expectation, instead of devaluing it because there is still more to do, pause to identify the steps that [you’ve already] taken as wins,” says Loo. “Plan something celebratory, even if it feels silly to do so. Breaking patterns often feels strange at the beginning.” 

On the flip side, reevaluate your definition of failure, with the understanding that failure is not lethal. “If you made some mistakes the first time you tried something new, what about the fact that you took a risk and tried?” she says. “Or what about [the] aspects of the experience you're motivated to try again, or the likelihood many others also made initial mistakes? Self-initiative, inspiration, relatability—these are all alternatives to viewing mistakes only as failures."

05 of 07

Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a loved one.

Criticism and mean words hurt. “If you wouldn’t say something to someone else, don’t say them to yourself,” Greco says. “Cruelty cannot bring improvement. We thrive in safety and acceptance, so bring those to your conversations with yourself.”

06 of 07

Find additional sources of self-worth.

Loo likens self-worth to a pie: “While achievement can be a slice of the pie—maybe even a relatively large one—there should be other slices.” Think about the other things that make you feel good about yourself—apart from how you achieve and perform. “Whether it's a role you play in a relationship or community, being creative, personal growth, or living in line with your values, there are many sources of self-worth other than achievement,” Loo notes.

07 of 07

Practice self-compassion.

This one may be a challenge, given that perfectionists often see self-compassion as indulgent, lazy, or a pathway to self-pity, Loo says. But being driven and accepting your shortcomings or failures don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “We can aim high and strive to achieve without being mean to ourselves in the process,” she explains. “Notice when your self-criticism starts to get going, and instead of tuning in for more, respond with understanding and kindness.”

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