Perfectionism is a personality trait that presents in a person striving for flawlessness and setting extremely high standards for themselves. This is often accompanied by extreme self-critiques and the searching of feedback from others. Perfectionism sounds like a great thing that turns people into productivity ninjas but being a true perfectionist is not as great as it sounds.
For perfectionists, life is an endless presentation to the world that you have your shit together. It sounds good but it can actually lead to some pretty serious mental health issues. Although perfectionism is all about success, perfectionists themselves tend to focus on failure and create a toxic narrative around their pursuit of excellence. Which is about as much fun as it sounds.
The simplest way to identify true perfectionism is to analyse your own self-talk. If your response to a failed job interview is ‘Damn. I really wanted that job. It’s okay, I’ll keep trying and find a better job.’ that’s a healthy response. If instead, you think ‘I’m the worst, no wonder they didn’t hire me. I’m not good enough.’ that’s a perfectionist response and those kinds of toxic and negative inner monologues need to be addressed.
I used to identify as a perfectionist but I don’t think I’m the full deal just yet. I say ‘yet’ because I can definitely see that part of me growing if I don’t stay on top of it. I have perfectionistic tendencies and it’s something I need to keep in check before it spirals out of control. For example, I love busying myself with menial tasks when I have crazy deadlines. When I feel overwhelmed, burying myself in something low risk and repetitive is my kryptonite. It’s obviously not a super useful trait but I find being aware of it really helps. For example this week, I have a big collaboration project due on Friday and instead of just dealing with it I decided to write lovely thank you notes to people and send them in the post. Super urgent right? Of course, I needed to go to Office Works and get some nice cards and a fancy new pen. That wasted at least two hours and kept me from having to deal with the big awful deadline that was steadily creeping up. And now instead of dealing with the deadline, I’m writing a blog post blaming perfectionism for not being able to meet my deadline. The stupid thing is that I WILL meet my deadline, I’ll just do it all on Thursday night and resent having to work all evening when I could have easily have done it earlier in the week. Ah perfectionism! Such a jerk.
If any of this sounds like you, here are some signs you may be a perfectionist…
1. You procrastinate a lot
Procrastination is often associated with laziness but it’s usually a sign of deeper issues and is the exact opposite of laziness. Perfectionists often put off completing a task because they don’t believe they have the time, skills or gumption to complete it. This is usually a total fabrication but it won’t stop a perfectionist from putting off a task, sometimes indefinitely. Have you ever decided to spontaneously clean out your entire wardrobe instead of packing for a trip and found yourself in a pile of clothes at 3am and without a single item in your suitcase? Yep. That’s the shit I’m talking about.
2. You spend far too much time doing things way too thoroughly
Perfectionism will often present itself in obsessive behaviour. Excessive organisation is a big red flag – things like spending hours on the digital categorisation of music or movie libraries for no obvious purpose or deliberately completing a task the long way. Perfectionists like to be engrossed in an achievable task and the longer that task takes, the better because it will prevent them from having to make another move. It also gives the illusion of productivity which perfectionists really enjoy. If you ever find yourself purposely sorting things that don’t need sorting (as in there’s no benefit to that level of organisation) then you might have a fairly strong perfectionist streak in you.
3. You’re very good at talking yourself out of doing things
Perfectionists are typically quite afraid of failure and one of the easiest ways to avoid failing, is to avoid trying. This is a classic perfectionist move. They’ll convince themselves not to apply for jobs they’re qualified for or to pursue bigger things because they’re worried about not succeeding. Often the chances of success aren’t even considered because the fear of failure is far too great.
Perfectionists will avoid doing things like bidding on their dream home in another city because the details of moving cities is just too much. Where will the kids go to school? What if they hate it there? What if the local supermarket is awful? What if someone died in that house and no one told us? What if it has asbestos? The theoretical negative outcomes of any situation will have a perfectionist paralysed by the unknown.
5. You obsess over small things
If everything is too overwhelming, perfectionists will focus on something really small. I had a perfectionist boss once and it was really difficult to manage. We had four really busy times each year and without fail, she’d freak out, pull me off the very important task I was doing and make me finely chop carrots for the morning tea she’d decided to spontaneously host for no reason in the middle of our busiest week of the quarter. Micro-managers are often perfectionists in disguise.
Being a perfectionist can be a huge asset but it also be a bit of burden. If you find yourself frequently displaying any of the above behaviours (I’m a 1, 2 and 4 gal) it might be a good idea to look into those behaviours and see if you can reduce or redirect them.
If you need some help in this department we have an episode of Straight & Curly all about perfectionism. You can listen here.
Also don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Perfectionism has been linked to mental health issues and you’ll be far better if you deal with these tendencies sooner rather than later.