Perfectionism is patterns of thinking and behaviours driven by the constant need to be or appear perfect (without flaws). It could also be described as the need to avoid being inadequate (anything less than perfect).
For many years I proudly called myself a perfectionist. I enjoyed the praise and recognition my “meticulous” work attracted. Society tells us that perfectionism is a good thing!
But eventually it became so stressful and exhausting that being seen in and accepting all my imperfections seemed less painful than trying to keep on being perfect. Perfectionism starts as an asset and ends up a burden.
Motherhood is the ideal breeding ground for perfectionism. In fact, if you didn’t develop it in childhood, it can be developed later in life, in very stressful situations where the expectations of you are very high, or you get regularly criticised and judged for making mistakes. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like motherhood to me!
Sometimes we know we have perfectionistic tendencies but numerous women have said to me that they didn’t realise until they learned more about how perfectionism manifests in our lives. Suddenly, the way they had been feeling, the behaviours they’d been choosing and the challenges they’d been facing made more sense.
So, in this article, I’d love to share some of the things you might notice in your life if you have perfectionistic tendencies. This isn’t a checklist, as perfectionism can show up in different ways for different people, and may not affect all areas of your life, but these are some things to look for.
1. You set impossibly high standards for yourself
People with perfectionistic tendencies often feel like perfectionism is completely justified because having high standards is a commitment to excellence, personal growth and doing your best. But we’re not talking about high standards, we’re talking about impossibly high standards. Unrealistic or unattainable standards. Excellence and growth allow for mistakes in the learning process. Perfectionism does not.
When things are going well and we are able to hit our goals we feel good. But no one is perfect and it’s impossible to do things perfectly all the time, so inevitably we will not meet our standard, and then we feel terrible. Even when you succeed you may still think you could have done better.
For example, you constantly clean your house, because if it doesn’t look like it belongs in a magazine, then you’re not doing a good enough job. The problem is your family undoes your work in moments, so it’s never ending. When you look at your untidy house, you feel defeated and angry but you just try harder, work harder and stay up later (especially before people come over) in an attempt to keep on top of things.
2. You believe your mistakes reflect personal flaws
When you have perfectionistic tendencies, mistakes are not just about the situation at hand. They are a reflection of who you are and how you are falling short. Instead of “failing” at one task or needing to improve at one thing, you are more likely to believe you are a failure. It’s hard to shift your focus off the negatives and look at the opportunities for growth. You also avoid letting anyone see your mistakes out of fear of judgement.
For example, you yelled at your children and rather than seeing it as a stress response to a trigger, you see it as evidence that you are a bad mum.
3. Your self-worth is determined by your performance and achievements
If you aren’t achieving or performing at a very high standard you feel unworthy, not good enough or incompetent, which makes it hard to bounce back from setbacks. Mistakes are disastrous and have a long lasting impact on your self-esteem.
Perfectionists are actually great at setting goals and achieving them, but this is how they measure their value. Since your worth is attached to how well you do things, you are very sensitive to criticism or negative “feedback”. You try to avoid it at all costs.
For example, you feel like a failure because you haven’t been able to bounce back to your pre-motherhood body. Your skin isn’t the same, you have more curves than before and you don’t have any clothes that make you feel beautiful. You believe this makes you not good enough as a wife and mother.
4. It’s hard to take a break
People with perfectionistic tendencies always have to be doing more because without constant performance and achievements their self-worth suffers. You work non-stop and avoid taking breaks, even when it is harming you. Your mind is always busy. You also find it difficult to ask for help which would give you space to take a break, because asking for help is admitting that you can’t do it yourself.
For example, your to-do list is a mile long and you’ve worked non-stop all day. You’d love to sit down and watch Netflix but you think you can’t rest until everything is done (everything is never done.) So you stay up long past midnight ploughing through the list by yourself.
5. People pleasing
People with perfectionistic tendencies are afraid to disappoint others which makes them more prone to people pleasing behaviours. You worry a lot about what others think of you because you want them to like you and accept you (and in your mind, this means they need to see you as perfect). You may be so focused on what others want that you find it hard to identify what you want, or you forget to consider it at all.
For example, Your mother-in-law asks you to bring some homemade cupcakes for afternoon tea on the weekend. You really don’t have the time or energy to do it, but you say yes anyway, then end up baking in the early hours of the morning while everyone is sleeping (and when you’d rather be sleeping). You feel resentful but also make sure every cupcake is beautifully decorated.
6. You are highly self-critical
Perfectionism drives us to notice every little flaw or mistake and criticise ourselves for them, sometimes over and over for a long time. We mistakenly think this will help us improve, but it actually just lowers our self-esteem and reinforces the feelings of not being good enough. You have trouble forgiving yourself and moving on, ruminating and replaying the situations. Most of the time you feel like you’re not good enough and you rely on other people’s praise to feel validated.
For example, you forgot your child’s hat when you went to the park and they got sunburned. You continue to feel guilty and berate yourself for this for over a week, and every time you look at your child it reminds you, so again you tell yourself how forgetful and irresponsible you are. You tell your partner hoping for some reassurance, but he responds with the comment “she really is very red!” and it just reinforces how you feel.
7. You set impossibly high standards for others
Some people with perfectionistic tendencies also set impossibly high standards for others. This can cause complications in relationships. You are likely be highly critical of their mistakes and the ways in which they don’t live up to your standards. When people don’t meet your standards, you feel angry and disappointed.
You might find that you prefer to take control of things yourself, because when you are in control, you can make sure the outcome is perfect. You probably notice that people are very happy to let you have control so they can avoid being criticised or supervised.
For example, you want your husband to clean up the kitchen after dinner but when he does, you constantly tell him what he’s done wrong and insist on him re-stacking the dishwasher in a particular way. Eventually, he quietly disappears after dinner time, before you can ask him to help. You feel unappreciated and unsupported.
8. All or nothing thinking
People with perfectionistic tendencies find it hard to see the middle ground. You’re perfect or you’re a failure. You succeeded or you failed. There’s no “good enough”. Good enough is settling or mediocrity.
For example, you feel like you should always be enjoying motherhood and feel nothing but love for your children, so you can’t tell anyone that you actually feel lonely and bored, and sometimes wish you could get away from your children. You feel like there’s something wrong with you and that you’re a bad mum for feeling this way.
9. Overworking and overthinking
Sometimes it takes a really long time to do things, because you redo, check and continue to perfect them long past the point of diminishing returns. You have a tendency to overthink things, researching for hours, getting caught up in trying to make the perfect or right decision, even though there may not be one, few decisions are final and we often can’t be sure what the consequences of our decisions will be until we try.
For example, you’re trying to decide which is the best school to send your child to. While this is definitely an important decision, you spend hours pouring over all the information you can find and asking for recommendations in multiple Facebook groups. It keeps you up at night while you continue to replay the pros and cons in your mind, worrying about what will happen if you make the wrong decision. Deep down, you know which one you prefer and you know what your partner thinks, but you feel paralysed by the idea that the wrong choice could create a bad experience for your child.
10. Avoidance and procrastination
Because people with perfectionistic tendencies fear failing, they will avoid doing things that they think they will not be able to excel at. They may avoid trying new things, or put off tasks that seem overwhelming or difficult.
For example, you have a project to do at home, but you’re worried it won’t turn out perfectly, so instead you find other “important” tasks to do, like clean out the fridge or rearrange the playroom and you avoid thinking about it at all.
Eek! You just described me!
If reading this has been very close to home and therefore a little disconcerting for you, I want to share a supportive perspective. You have developed these perfectionistic thinking and behaviour patterns because your brain is trying to protect you.
Remember, that underneath perfectionistic tendencies is the fear that we will be rejected or unloved for being not good enough. This drives us to do anything we can to avoid these outcomes. If you’ve been a high achiever for most of your life, this can exacerbate the fear, because your brain doesn’t have many experiences of being imperfect (in a way that is meaningful to you) and being ok. When we avoid situations where we might fail, we keep those perfectionistic patterns going.
So, while perfectionistic behaviours and thinking may not be supporting your wellbeing and happiness, they were created out of purpose.
If you decide that perfectionism is something you no longer want for yourself, a good place to start is to work on rewriting the belief that you need to be perfect to be loved, accepted and worthy.
You get to choose what you believe.
At first it’s going to require you to continue to remind yourself of your new belief when those fears pop up, but it is completely possible to rewrite that belief and rewire those perfectionistic patterns in your brain. I know this because I have done it myself.
I choose to believe that I am loved, accepted and good enough just exactly as I am, imperfections and all.
The great thing about your brain is, that once you start focusing on this new belief and finding evidence for it, you start to see more and more evidence and you will come to know it to be true.
What do you choose to believe?
How might your life be better if you could let go of perfectionism?
Before you go…
If you are ready to release perfectionism in your life and feel happier, calmer and more confident, then I can help you! This is one of my favourite areas to work with clients on and I know how much of a difference some one-on-one support can make.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat about how we can work together.