Here are three clear signs that your perfectionism is pushing you further from the perfect and closer to the ism.
1. You’re focused on failure.
If your mind is often occupied with thoughts of your own shortcomings, you’re likely approaching perfectionism in an unhealthy way.
There are two types of perfectionists–positive and negative ones. A positive perfectionist (also known as a ‘high achiever’) focuses on success. A negative perfectionist is more likely to look towards failure.
Let’s put that into perspective through a little quiz:
After a rigorous day of work, sweaty workout, or creative brainstorm session, do you feel like you’re either:
a). You’re making progress towards your long term goals
b). You could have done better and could be doing more?
For all my B’s in the room, you’re tying your perfectionism to your self worth. In contrast, high achieving A’s aren’t pathologizing their capabilities, and are focusing instead on the bigger picture. As impossible as it may seem, that’s the kind of thinking we should all be striving for.
Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, offers a 5 step process for overcoming your obsession with failure:
Identify your triggers: whether that’s comparing yourself to others on social media or facing a daunting new project.
Learn to separate your thoughts and feelings: Instead of thinking to yourself, “I haven’t achieved anything,” recognize the true meaning of that thought is “I feel like I haven’t achieved anything.” If you can remind yourself that your original thought was just your mind obsessing over failure again, you’re in a better position to move on from it.
Stop thinking and start doing: As a perfectionist, you’re prone to “ruminating.” Instead of reflecting on the most perfect thing you can do, choose a small, actionable step you can actually take.
Take a breather from your “sticky thoughts”: Work on something else, go on a walk, take a shower, meditate. Bring your brain to the present, where your negative thinking won’t be so adhesive.
Remove your personal bias: If you hate what you’re working on, walk away from it. There’s a good chance you’re leaning into distorted thinking, and some time and space away will provide you with a more objective lens.
2. You procrastinate.
Clinical Psychologist Dr. Bill Knaus breaks down the vicious perfectionism-procrastination cycle into seven steps:
Your standards are painstakingly high.
You second guess whether you’ll be able to meet those standards.
Still, you won’t settle for anything less.
The thought of not getting it 100% right makes you want to crawl out of your skin.
You fear the feeling of wanting to crawl out of your skin. (You know it too well).
You avoid the task entirely by drowning yourself in a feng shui rabbit hole or attempting to master mermaid hair. Sound familiar? You’re trapped in the perfectionism vortex. At this point, Knaus leaves you with one single, brutally honest ultimatum:
“You repeat this exasperating process” or “you get off this contingent-worth merry-go-round by working to do better while not demanding perfection from yourself.”
3. You’re Still Not Over Your A+ Days.
Just like with any psychological behavior, perfectionism begins at an early age. When we do well, we’re awarded gold stars. When we’re awarded gold stars, we’re expected to win those gold stars again and again.
Perfectionist researchers Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett note that anyone who has ever felt a societal pressure to achieve is likely to be fueled by a “the better they do, the better they are expected to do” mentality.
For that reason, Senior Health & Science Writer Carolyn Gregoire suggests that perfectionists are often those who loved school growing up. “Success was quantifiable — you had assignments, grades, feedback, and a teacher whose job it was to provide positive feedback and a pat on the back for a job well-done. You might have been a teacher’s pet, or maybe you were voted ‘most likely to succeed’ in the yearbook. The structure of school and easy equation of ‘work hard, do well, be rewarded’ is a comfort for most perfectionists,” says Gregoire.
Unfortunately, achievement as an adult isn’t nearly as “neat” or linear, which can be very overwhelming for perfectionists. If there isn’t an A+ to quantify their effort, they are unable to emotionally process their success.
Fortunately, Hewitt and Flett believe that perfectionism isn’t a psychological disorder, only a risk factor for one. That means, therapy can go a long way in managing it.
Speaking with a mental health provider can help you develop methods to combat negative thought processes and channel positive perfectionism. That includes changing your standards to be more realistic, focusing on mindfulness, and challenging distorted thinking.