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How Does Perfectionism Affect Our Lives?

This lesson is a part of an audio course How to Overcome Perfectionism and Fear of Failure by Nar Mina

Perfectionists seem to be motivated and energetic. As for the casual observer, they are always happy, cheerful, and full of optimism. If you dig deeper, you will find incredible internal tension, which can lead to depression, anxiety, anger, shame, insomnia, headaches, and even suicide.

They may postpone seeing a doctor because they are not in good shape. They can rigorously control every piece of food or become obese, thinking that "it is not worth trying at all."

They often put other people's needs above their own health or pleasure.

In personal relationships, perfectionism can interfere with physical intimacy: for example, a woman shies away from sex because she has an imperfect body.

It is difficult to keep a close relationship with a person who has perfectionist standards. That's why sometimes it means loneliness. Perfectionists fear that people will notice their shortcomings, so they don't let anyone close to them.

A perfectionist tends to project his own high standards on others.

The bride can try too hard to make the wedding perfect to the smallest details. A mother makes her child succeed in sport, depriving him of childhood and simple joys. Their children constantly feel that they are being assessed and judged. They think that they will never be able to live up to their parents' expectations because they fall short.

Women with eating disorders have unrealistically high expectations in terms of weight, control over their diet, appearance, and exercise adherence. They restrict calories, binge, and purge, or over-exercise to reach their "perfect" weight; however, no matter how thin they get, they never feel they've reached their goal.

A perfectionist is either a hard worker who responds to emails at two o'clock in the morning and is first to arrive at the office or a "supervisor" who does not want to (or cannot) delegate responsibilities, despite his workload. And even if he delegates, he continues to closely monitor each step of his team.

It is difficult for perfectionists to finish what they started. Many businessmen do not want to create their own websites, or publish articles or make presentations for fear that it all will turn out to be imperfect. The perfectionists lack flexibility, and teamwork requires flexible people who are ready to make exceptions, and if necessary, make changes.

Excessive self-correction results in stress, and it rather leads to a desire to quit everything than to keep things going.

Some perfectionists are extremely picky about their environment. They attach great importance to the details and are over-organizing (even their junk-box is neatly divided into sections!). Worse, they can get truly upset if something is out of place.

Other sides of perfectionism are procrastination, depression, and low mood. Since perfectionists tend to put productivity above pleasure, you can often hear them say: "I haven't been on vacation for several years." Even when they take a break, even for a few hours, they are constantly worried about the things that they should "be doing." They get stuck in details that should be "ideal," so they lose overall vision. You'd think that the perfectionists have everything; still, they feel like they are missing something.

Perfectionism is about dealing with early feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. This fear of uncertainty often leads to adopting rigid rules, which can be paralyzing. What's more, having this continual drive to be perfect makes it difficult to follow our passion, to be creative, to become excited about new ideas and interests.

Perfectionism leads to the development of a disproportionate need for control – control of ourselves, our feelings, other people, and the things that happen to us. But the notion of control is a myth – because how much in life can we actually control?

Perfectionist feels anxious when not in control, and this can cause problems, particularly when it comes to delegation because after all there is only one way to do things – his way! When we delegate a task, it involves trusting someone else to produce results that we feel we will be judged on. This can make us come across as inflexible and uncompromising, as “control freaks” or “micro-managers.” If things don't go perfectly, we often blame those around us, the circumstances, or the fact that it was “last minute.”

All or nothing thinking is very common. Perfectionists think of themselves as either in control or out of control, right or wrong, happy or unhappy. And the more they think in those terms, the more likely they are to re-enforce their perfectionism, the problem is that much of this “thinking” goes on just below the level of conscious awareness, where it can't benefit from analysis and scrutiny.

People who are perfectionistic often find it difficult to make decisions. They worry about making a mistake, even when making the simplest of choices – deciding what to wear or what to order in a restaurant. And they change their mind several times.

Sometimes they feel quite paralyzed by the enormity of a task. Because they tend to see things in rather “black and white” terms, they see the task as one huge problem which threatens to overwhelm them, as opposed to taking a step-by-step approach.

Perfectionistic personality traits can cause a wide range of difficulties. Difficulty making decisions (checking and rechecking), over-analyzing, ruminating, being too picky about potential partners.

Perfectionism promises much but delivers misery. The harder you strive for perfection, the worse your disappointment will become, because perfectionism is only an abstraction, a concept that doesn't fit reality" David Burns.

Perfectionists behave differently: some try to impress others by bragging or displaying their perfection (and they often irritate other people); others avoid situations in which they might display their imperfection, and they tend to keep problems to themselves (including an inability to admit failure).

Low self-esteem and lack of self-belief can lead to the feeling that we will never achieve our goals in life, and that can produce a kind of immobilization. We lack the energy and motivation to make things happen. And this can lead to depression.

The pursuit of excellence is not a bad thing. The desire for perfection per se is quite natural. The perfectionist's intention to achieve excellence is not bad quality. The problem is her reaction when she cannot achieve absolute perfection.

She personalizes the "imperfect" result, assessing her own importance with it, thinking: "I am not good enough." Even after taking second place worldwide in a certain sport, she is not satisfied.

Perfectionists often feel that they aren't happy. They have this assumption that truly happy people are somehow immune from sadness, fear, and anxiety or from experiencing failures and setbacks.

They believe that there is only one right way of action – and they must find it. "everything must be perfect so that they can be pleased with themselves"

If you do not achieve 100% success in 100% of cases, it does not make you a loser. It only means that you are human. It is very important to draw a line between a healthy desire for mastery and a stressful thirst for perfection.

Some people have perfectionist tendencies in all or most areas of life, others have it only in certain areas, like work, studies, cleaning, relationships, physical appearance, weight, or money.

One of the reasons perfectionism is difficult to overcome is because we associate it with certain positive traits. Many people in job interviews mention perfectionism when they are asked to name a personal weakness. They usually equate perfectionism with making sure things are done, and done well, and paying attention to details. Their "admission" of perfectionism is a roundabout way of revealing a strength, of saying, "I am detail-oriented, methodical, hard-working, and you can trust me."

Perfectionist qualities are habits: just a way of thinking, interacting with the world, evaluating ourselves and those around us. The mere thought of transforming perfectionist tendencies terribly scares us: we focus on positive aspects, on previous accomplishments and dedication, and do not think of the high price we pay in an endless race for what we want.

This is the end of lesson 2. In the next lesson, you'll learn about perfectionists' fear of failure.

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Written by

Nar Mina

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