Wynn Coughlin, LCSW, CADC

When I ask this question for the first time to my clients, I’ve found that most immediately dismiss the idea that they could, in fact, be a perfectionists. The primary reason? “Well…I’m not perfect.” Occasionally, those who will acknowledge their tendencies may claim that perfectionism is how they have been able to achieve success. While it is relatively easy to identify perfectionist aspects of our society and mainstream culture at large, it can be more difficult to recognize its presence in our individual lives, especially since it has the potential to be both healthy and unhealthy.

Whether someone can be called a perfectionist is not solely a reflection the external outcomes of their tendencies, such as a 4.0 GPA, a uniformly spotless home, or earning a specific income. Rather perfectionism can be conceptualized of as an overall orientation to life that prioritizes control, personalizes mistakes, and evokes intense fear of not meeting expectations. It is about patterns of thought and behavior in relation to the results being sought. Unhealthy perfectionism involves unrealistic expectations for self and others as well as intense shame, anger, or distress when they are not met. Perfectionism is not the same as ambition although the two may be somewhat related. Perfectionist thinking is often guided by cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing, and over-generalizing. Unhealthy perfectionism is often driven more by an underlying sense of shame and inferiority than its healthier counterpart so goals, achieving, and success become a way to compensate for perceived flaws.

Healthy perfectionism may have driven you to develop lofty goals, but unhealthy perfectionism can lead you to burn out before conquering them. To illustrate, let’s say that you have not been exercising consistently for a while and, for motivation, you decide to work towards running a marathon (a lofty goal). Healthy perfectionism might lend someone to research proper running form, the best running shoes, and plans to gradually increase distance and decrease speed. Alternatively, intense fear that not accomplishing the goal will mean failure as a person could propel someone with unhealthy perfectionism to go overboard during the training period to the point of repeated injury. If you are still wondering if you might be struggling with unhealthy perfectionism, explore what has been pushing you towards a particular goal and how you have felt about yourself if that goal has not come to fruition. Do you feel disappointed or frustrated, which are normal healthy responses? Or do you feel intense shame, guilt, and feelings of being bad, worthless, unlovable and unworthy?

If left untreated, perfectionism can lead to feelings of emptiness in conjunction with resentment, depression, and anxiety. While active perfectionists may believe that their behavior affects only themselves, it eventually can negatively impact relationships as distortions damage trust, gratitude, and realistic thinking. The opposite of perfectionism is not complacency – it’s balance. It is possible to maintain high standards while still having realistic expectations and space to breathe. Therapy can be a very useful tool in helping to create a more balanced lifestyle. Reach out to connect with one of Symmetry’s quality therapists today!