By: Nic Cadman, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying)
What comes to mind when I ask you to imagine a perfectionist?
Some of us may think of ourselves or people in our lives. Others may picture cultural prototypes of perfectionists – the busy CEOs, star athletes or successful artists. In truth, perfectionists can vary widely
, grouped together by some common themes in their thoughts and behaviours. However, some of these behaviours may be unnoticed or downplayed because they don’t quite match up with these cultural prototypes. I’m going to talk about some patterns that are common among perfectionists that might help you better understand their behaviour and open the possibility for change.
First off, let’s distinguish between two types of perfectionists: Overt and Covert
perfectionists. Overt perfectionists adhere more closely to what we traditionally understand to be perfectionistic behaviour: type A, successful, busy schedule, high achieving, and presenting an immaculate outward facing image. These behaviours largely make up our societal understanding of perfectionism but aren’t a complete picture of all perfectionists. Covert perfectionists may share many of the same thought patterns as overt perfectionists, but with differing appearances from the outside. Both hold the belief of “I should be perfect” and if they are not able to meet these expectations, there may be negative self-talk and blame but with covert perfectionists, there are often self-defeating patterns. As an example, a covert perfectionist who just received a bad grade on an assignment might start to do all their assignments at the last minute. Their grades might begin to suffer further, but they can now attribute the poor quality of the assignments to being pressed for time rather than it being a reflection on their intelligence or potential.
This expanded definition of perfectionism allows us to notice its presence in people who don’t fit the mold of how it’s traditionally imagined. These are the people whose lives wouldn’t set off alarm bells for perfectionism because of disorganization, a lack of achievement or ambition, or minimizing their attempts to tailor the image they present to the world. By taking this more holistic view of perfectionists, we can still notice common themes that show up for many perfectionists.
- High Standards
- Belief that they shouldn’t make mistakes, have flaws or be disagreeable
- Using success as a stand in for worth
- Focusing on the past & future
- Striving to be perfect
Maybe by now you’re starting to see yourself in these descriptions. Let’s look more closely at a few of these here and, if you’re interested in delving deeper into these themes, please join us on Saturday, November 6.
Even when a perfectionist has internalized that they cannot truly be perfect, often the expectations they have for themselves can be quite lofty. This is characterized with thoughts that associate mediocrity with interiority. There is often a very specific criteria for success. Now there’s nothing wrong with aiming high, but setting strict boundaries around what constitutes success can often lead to disappointment. Common examples you may recognize is getting an 89% on a test and feeling that it’s a failing grade or focusing on the one realm of your life that has yet to come together when all others are thriving. We can also see examples of this when perfectionists try things for the first time and are not immediately good at them. If their standards aren’t flexible, they may prematurely abandon potentially enjoyable hobbies. They may also turn the process into a purely skill acquisition conquest that removes goals of enjoyment, relaxation or socializing from the equation.
Belief that they shouldn’t make mistakes, have flaws, or be disagreeable
Few people enjoy displeasing others if we can help it, but for perfectionists, disappointing others may be treated as evidence of their inadequacies. It is important for people to feel able to say no to things that don’t work for them and to not see other people’s reactions as a measure of our value. Even if we could be perfect, it wouldn’t buffer us against displeasing others from time to time. Not wanting to seem disagreeable may be less noticeable from the outside because it can appear as prosocial behaviour, but may have its costs through the suppression of our own needs or build resentment towards others.
Using success as a stand in for worth
Feeling worthwhile is an incredibly important factor for our psychological health. However, how we imagine our worth or if we try to quantify it can quickly become difficult to easily sum up. Those frustrated with this difficulty in measurement may begin using other measures as a replacement. Successes in our professional or personal lives may feel like firmer ground by being more tangible units of measurement. I will never know or be able to quantify the value I provide to the world, but I do know if I received a promotion at work, bought a house or got married.
The problem is that these efforts often start from a negative. I have no value until I have proof to the contrary. This can make setbacks quite alarming if we construe any rejection to be about our worthiness.
Did you recognize some of these traits in yourself or someone you know? If you would be interested to learn more about these common themes and ways of shifting perfectionism, I will be running a workshop on perfectionism and making a change. It will be an opportunity to explore further and have discussions with people who know what it feels like.
The workshop will take place virtually on Saturday November 6th, 2021 from 1-3pm
. Registration is $35, however if price is a barrier, please let me know as some low-cost spots will be reserved. To register, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please register here