4 Perfectionistic Tendencies You May Be Suffering From

Perfectionism is one the most widespread  tendencies people suffer from, and it is nearly always a consequence of a dysfunctional childhood environment. In this environment, the individual was overly controlled and abused in other ways, and such a person was, among other things, expected to meet unrealistic standards, to be flawless, and was actively or passively punished for doing anything the caregiver disapproved of, and didn’t receive enough genuine love and attention. Over many years, this conditions the child to be terrified of errors or of even being perceived as imperfect. 

Such a person’s caregivers usually, but not always, possess strong narcissistic traits where they either won’t or can’t see the child as a separate, self-interested human being; they child is perceived as an extension of themselves or someone who’s only here to meet their needs. The child was told what to do, what to feel, what to think, and consequently, were unable to develop a strong sense of self. For them, being authentic and genuine was both not allowed and punishable. 

These people grow up and end up developing perfectionistic traits as a response to and a survival mechanism against controlling and otherwise abusive or inadequate environment. Some of the traits closely overlap with narcissism, obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD), rumination, neurosis, social anxiety, people pleasing, never feeling good enough, toxic guilt and unjust responsibility, and other conditions and states.

Here are some of more common perfectionistic traits that you may recognize in yourself or people you know. 

4 Common Perfectionistic Tendencies

1. Fear of Making Mistakes 

You are terrified of not knowing something, of not being able to optimally perform, or of making a mistake. Usually this type of fear or anxiety is more prevalent in a public setting where there is a risk of being perceived as flawed by others. 

Instead of mistakes being part of the learning process to gaining new skills, insight, or knowledge, they learned that making a mistake equals being morally bad. And being bad in the past resulted in active or passive punishment. Understandably, then, making a mistake triggers a strong emotional reaction. 

To cope with it, some people swing from one psychoemotional extremum to another. On one side, there’s feeling terribly guilty, ashamed, and overly responsible (“everything is my fault,” “I am completely worthless”), and on the other, there’s denial of any responsibility, placing blame on others, or misrepresenting themselves as having no flaws (“everything is someone else’s fault,” “I’m always right”). 

Others just stay stuck on one pole and become either completely self-blaming and self-attacking (what is traditionally referred to as low self-esteem), or narcissistic and otherwise grandiose (inflated self-esteem, which is a different form of low self-esteem). Both are irrational.

2. Overthinking and Difficulties Making Decisions 

You are constantly living in your head, where you ruminate about your past actions, fret about the future, and generally try to solve all the possible and impossible scenarios. This often results in indecisiveness, passivity, and poor productivity. 

It is also closely related to the first tendency because the person is usually afraid to make a decision in fear of what will happen if they choose or have chosen suboptimally. So they spend a lot of time overthinking. This creates problems focusing and concentrating on the task at hand because their mind is jumping from one thought to another, is obsessively spinning between the same thoughts, or goes blank to manage all this anxiety and to get some rest from all of this mental noise.

Sometimes it manifests itself in such seemingly absurd situations where the person is at a supermarket and can’t make up their mind for 15 minutes about which orange to pick because they “need” to pick the best one. It paralyzes action to the person’s own detriment.

3. All or Nothing

You are prone to think only in black and white terms. This tendency is especially problematic in a work environment because you may not be able to finish projects if you feel that it is not good enough. For example, you may keep trying to improve your project but never feel satisfied with it, and eventually you may throw it out altogether and start anew. 

This may also get in the way of enjoying life and feeling relaxed because you may always find something to worry about or be dissatisfied with. And when you solve that, some new dissatisfaction comes up—so you never feel that things are okay, you never feel good in the moment because you worry or feel upset about something that is not ideal. 

For instance, if your day went okay but then a small inconvenience came up, you may write off the whole day as being bad. Or you don’t want to try new things and tend to abandon them quickly because you are not an expert at it.

From a social standpoint, you may see others—and yourself—as all good or all bad, flawless or rotten, friend or an enemy. Here, a person who sees the world in such terms is missing all the nuance and subtleties that comes with being a human being. 

4. SHOULDs and have TOs

People with perfectionistic tendencies live in a world of SHOULDs and HAVE TOs. Instead of saying, “I want to do this,” or, “I choose to do that,” they say, “I should to do this,” or “I have to do that.”

It manifests itself both in a person’s internal dialogue and in relation to others. In a relationship with yourself, it creates a very controlling environment where you harshly order yourself around and attack yourself for making mistakes or being inefficient.

In relation to others and the world, oftentimes such a person has a very strong belief that things should be a certain way or that everyone else should act, feel, and think a certain way. If reality doesn’t match what they think it should be, they feel upset. 

Usually, it results in excessively trying to change others and in general being overly concentrated on and overly concerned with other people. Some people suffering from it have a poor sense of boundaries and have no problem imposing themselves onto others (bullying, stalking, provoking, being overly critical, vilifying, manipulating) or otherwise invading other people’s mental or even physical space. Others become severe people-pleasers and suffer from codependency and never feeling good enough.

Without self-work, self-understanding, and self-compassion, the cycle will likely repeat itself unbeknownst to the people involved. Recognizing what perfectionism is and the forms it may take is a good step towards breaking the cycle.

There is so much more to this topic, so we will stop here and continue in other articles.

Do you recognize any of these traits in yourself? What is or was the hardest thing for you about it? What did you find helpful in overcoming it? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or write about it in your journal.

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