The Characteristics of Perfectionism

By S. Renee Smith, Vivian Harte

Here’s how perfectionism works: First, you have low self-esteem to begin with. Then in order to deal with this feeling, you set unrealistic and unattainable goals to prove once and for all to yourself and to others that you do have value and that you are competent and important.

But because the goals are impossible, you fail. This failure leads to feelings of anger at yourself. If only you had spent more time, if only you had tried harder, you could have reached these goals. This anger turns into even greater low self-esteem.

So you try again. You set even higher unrealistic goals, fail to meet them, experience even more profound anger at yourself, and your low self-esteem takes a deeper nose-dive. Eventually, you may give up and avoid even trying to reach your goals at all because you consider yourself such a failure.

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Perfectionism manifests in many different ways.

After you read the following list, use your notebook to keep track of all the perfectionist tendencies, thoughts, and behaviors you have for a week. Every evening before you go to sleep, review the day and write down each time you felt you hadn’t done something well enough, each time you saw yourself as a failure or not good enough, and the thoughts that went through your mind when these things were happening.

After a week, look at your list and note which tendencies, thoughts, and behaviors were the most frequent. Then write about how you and those around you are hurt by what you observed about yourself.

  • Feeling deeply upset if you make any mistakes

    Being a perfectionist means that you believe that perfection definitely can and should be achieved at all times. None of this mamby-pamby “Everyone makes mistakes” for you! Even if the task isn’t something you have much interest in, you think that you should be the best at it because you should be the best in everything you do.

  • Thinking you’re stupid if you perform imperfectly

    If you’re a perfectionist, you believe that something is wrong with you if you do anything that isn’t flawless. You must perform at 100 percent in everything you do or you may be considered “average,” which is a terrible thing to be.

  • Rarely letting others help with your projects

    Because it’s crucial that everything be done to the highest level of attainment, it’s very difficult for you to let others help you in anything you do. You must see it through to the end, making sure that every little detail is done correctly.

  • Waiting to do things at the last minute — or maybe not at all

    If you have perfectionist tendencies, when you fear you’re going to fail, you put off doing what needs to be done. You procrastinate. You’re so immobilized with anxiety and dread that something will go wrong, you can’t find the motivation to get started on what you need to accomplish.

  • Being defensive if others criticize you

    If perfectionism is something you live with every day, your self-esteem is low and you’re basically an insecure person. You have a sense of inadequacy.

    These feelings of incompetence lead you to need to prove yourself through what you do. Your desire to be perfect, to show others that you are very capable, is the longing to make a positive statement about yourself.

  • Handling relationships poorly

    You’re actually scared of people because they can point out that you’re imperfect and incompetent. This doesn’t lead to close relationships. It leads to isolation and loneliness.

    You have a difficult time opening up to people. You feel deep down that you must remain strong and in control of your emotions at all times. So you can’t talk with others about your worries, shortcomings, and frustrations.