What Perfectionism Looks Like in Your Life

Having a clear understanding of your perfectionist traits and the resulting problems will help you focus your change efforts on your particular areas of struggle. And lastly, we’ll explore the benefits of perfectionism, so you can moderate, rather than completely discard, those aspects of your perfectionism that serve you well.

Identifying Your Perfectionist Traits

Perfectionism looks a little different for everyone. Some of your perfectionist traits may be obvious to you, but you may uncover some other perfectionist traits that are more subtle or hidden through the checklist and questions in this post.

The perfectionist traits checklist that follows isn’t a test that will be scored. It’s not designed to tell you definitively whether you’re a perfectionist or not. Perfectionism isn’t an all-or-nothing characteristic; there isn’t a threshold that says if you have X number of these traits, you’re officially a perfectionist. In fact, it doesn’t actually matter how many of the traits you check off.

My aim is to provide you with insights into yourself, so you can work on changing the particular perfectionist behaviors and thought patterns that get in the way of you living a fulfilling life.

Which of these traits describe you?

  • You set exceptionally high standards for yourself.
  • You have high standards for others and find they often don’t live up to them.
  • You feel others have unrealistic expectations of you.
  • You’re concerned about errors or mistakes.
  • You’re goal-driven.
  • You never feel satisfied; there’s always more to do or accomplish.
  • You’re sensitive to criticism and try to avoid it.
  • You’re detail-oriented.
  • You’re highly self-critical.
  • You’re critical of others.
  • You’re afraid of disappointing people.
  • Your expectations are often unrealistic, leading to disappointment or frustration.
  • You’re always busy.
  • You rarely take a sick day.
  • You crave organization, lists, planners, charts, and data.
  • You try to avoid making mistakes, and you see them as bad.
  • You dwell on your mistakes and imperfections.
  • You base your worth as a person on your accomplishments.
  • Even when you succeed, you feel like it’s not enough or that you could have done better.
  • You’d rather do things yourself than have someone else do them “wrong.”
  • Sometimes it takes you a long time to finish things, because you redo, check, and try to make them perfect.
  • You worry a lot about what people think of you.
  • You try to avoid conflicts.†† You procrastinate or don’t start things, because you don’t think you can do them perfectly.
  • People have judged you harshly in the past.
  • You’re afraid to fail.
  • You feel angry or resentful.
  • You feel defective or flawed.
  • A change of plans can be upsetting to you.
  • You ruminate or overthink things.
  • You have stress-related health problems such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, or high blood pressure.
  • You play it safe.
  • You don’t like to try new things, especially when there’s a chance of embarrassment, incompetence, or not being as good as everyone else.
  • You’re a workaholic, putting in long hours and missing out on leisure activities because you have to work.
  • You have a hard time relaxing.
  • You have insomnia or trouble sleeping.
  • You have trouble being happy for others’ success.
  • You don’t like to share your weaknesses or vulnerabilities with others.
  • You tend to feel tense, stressed, or anxious.
  • You need to win at all costs.
  • You think that if you were really smart or talented, you wouldn’t have to work so hard.
  • You demand a lot of others.
  • You’re frequently disappointed when people fail to meet your expectations.
  • You have difficulty being spontaneous.
  • You believe that a single failure or flaw defines you.
  • You want to feel in control at all times.
  • Despite many signs of success, you don’t actually feel successful.

Which perfectionist traits cause you the most distress? Identify the three to five most problematic traits you have, and describe how often you experience them.

How Does Your Perfectionism Impact Your Life?

Let’s take a look at how your perfectionist traits are impacting your life in order to get a clearer picture of how your life can improve by being more compassionate and realistic.

Stress

I have never met a perfectionist who wasn’t stressed! When things are going well—you’re achieving your goals, and life is generally going as planned—perfectionism may not cause you many obvious problems. But if it’s your nature to demand a lot from yourself, work harder than most, and sacrifice sleep and rest to fulfill one more obligation or do one more thing, you’re going to feel stressed, due to the pressure you put on yourself both emotionally and physically.

Stress can show up in our bodies as aches and pains, insomnia and trouble sleeping, gastrointestinal problems, muscles tension, and low energy. Stress also impacts our mood, contributing to anxiety, depression, and a short temper. Some perfectionists have trouble managing their emotions when they get angry, disappointed, or frustrated, and others shut themselves off from their feelings. You may blow up over seemingly small problems or changes. Or you may go the opposite route, becoming quite unemotional, because you’re trying to cope by ignoring, distracting, or numbing yourself to avoid feeling the things that stress you out. Neither is an effective way to deal with your feelings. A build-up of negative feelings (anger, hurt, disappointment, frustration, fear, sadness) contributes not only to stress and tension but also to larger problems like anxiety and depression.

Perfectionists also tend to struggle even more than the average person when life takes an unexpected turn, whether it’s moving, the death of a loved one, the stock market plummeting, or failing to meet a goal. We often have a hard time recovering from setbacks such as these, because we’re apt to focus on the negatives, let single events define us, and think in rigid, all-or-nothing parameters. These things make it tough for us to roll with the punches and adjust when life feels out of control or just isn’t going the way we’d hoped or expected. As a result, we seem to overreact when we experience disappointments, failures, or unplanned events.

Even though I’ve come a long way with my own perfectionism, I still find it challenging to quiet my mind. I tend to have so many ideas and worries that my brain is in overdrive. (Later in the book, I’ll share with you some of the techniques I use to stop worrying and relax.) This is common among perfectionists and overachievers—we have busy minds, which is not surprising, given all the balls we’re juggling. And we tend to overthink things, as well as to ruminate or think about the same things over and over again, which not only interferes with productivity but also increases our stress level. For me, this shows up as difficulty making decisions. When we believe it’s imperative that we choose the perfect color to paint the house or the perfect outfit to wear to an important meeting, it gets overwhelming and analysis paralysis can set in. We agonize about needing to get it right, as if there is only one nice color to paint the house or wearing the wrong suit will have dire consequences.

How does the stress of perfectionism negatively impact your health? Do you have physical symptoms, like trouble sleeping, headaches, backaches, or gastrointestinal issues? Does stress exacerbate a chronic illness or medical condition?

What about mental health concerns like feelings of depression, anxiety, or anger? Do you think stress contributes to those?

When you encounter setbacks, how do you typically feel? And how do you respond?

Do you experience overthinking or difficulty making decisions?

Work-Life Balance

Working eighty hours a week is exhausting, no matter whether it’s at an office, as a volunteer, or as a caregiver and household manager for your family. One of the natural consequences of working so much is that we don’t have time or energy for other things, such as hobbies, relationships, fun and play, vacations, or daily rest and relaxation. We simply can’t do everything, and as perfectionists, we often choose work or put other people’s needs above our own. You may be thinking, Work is important, and I put in all those hours because I have to. Sometimes working long hours is necessary, but perfectionists tend to work excessively, either out of duty and not wanting to disappoint people or because they genuinely love to work and get great satisfaction from a job well done. In either case, there are often changes that we can make to bring our lives into better balance. Mei and Chris, both overworked teachers, illustrate how work and personal life can be out of balance when perfectionists feel driven to work excessively.

Mei’s Story

Mei is an enthusiastic young fifth-grade teacher at an urban public school. She routinely gets to school at six thirty in the morning in order to do lesson planning and grading. She has an open-door policy, which means her students can stop by before school, during lunch, or after school for extra help. During most lunch periods, Mei has a group of girls come to eat lunch and chat with her. Between meetings, straightening up her classroom, and directing the school musical, it’s unusual if she leaves school before six. Evenings and weekends are spent grading papers, making costumes, and learning creative new approaches to teach her students. Mei loves her job and her students. She sees teaching as her calling and feels it’s essential that she’s a positive role model and inspiration, as many of her students don’t have anyone at home who encourages their academic and emotional growth. Mei gave up on dating, because she doesn’t have time, and her friends have stopped calling, because she always turns down their invitations to happy hour or weekend barbeques. At this point, her social life consists of dinner with her parents on Sunday nights.

Chris’s Story

Of course, not everyone who spends a lot of time at work enjoys it. Chris is a committed high school math teacher who also puts in long hours. Unlike Mei, he resents having to spend his evenings and weekends working. He’d rather be spending time with his wife and kids or restoring classic cars with his brother. Everything about his job seems to irritate Chris—he can’t take a real lunch break, the students are disruptive and unmotivated, and the parents expect an immediate response to their frequent e-mails. Chris had to give up his morning run when he got roped into coaching swimming before school four days a week. However, Chris made a commitment to teaching for two more years, and he’ll see it through despite feeling resentful and burned-out.

Perfectionists are workhorses, and despite our fatigue and overwhelm, people count on us to get things done—and we generally come through for them. You may work nonstop because you love it, like Mei, or out of obligation or fear, like Chris, but the end result is always that our personal life, our hobbies, and our fun and self-care fall by the wayside.

Another challenge that perfectionists often have with hobbies and recreation is that we turn them into competitions and situations where we feel compelled to excel and prove our worth. So we might take a casual weekend soccer game and turn it into a competition; we get fixated on winning, playing by the rules, or micromanaging the game. Or we take a painting class with a friend, and instead of going with the flow, we want our painting to be exactly like the example. This can suck the fun right out of activities that are meant to be low-key opportunities to kick back, relax, and bond with our friends and family.

What would happen if you worked less?

What drives you to work so much?

What are you giving up in order to work so much?

What do you do for fun? What do you do to relax? Do you prioritize time for hobbies or relaxation?

Can you keep a hobby light and fun, or does it turn into a competitive or perfectionist endeavor?

Are there things that you used to do for fun, but now you’ve quit, because you don’t have time or it doesn’t seem important?

Missed Opportunities

In addition to our busyness, we miss out on a lot of life’s pleasures because of fear. Our fears can be so deep that we actually convince ourselves that we don’t want to do things rather than tap into the awareness that we’re afraid of failure, embarrassment, criticism, rejection, and not being as good as everyone else. These fears can prevent us from doing specific things, like public speaking or joining a community softball league. And despite being high achievers, our fears hold us back from doing things that might enhance our lives. These could be business opportunities, forming new relationships, traveling, or hobbies. We like to stick to things we know we’re good at; this way, we’re assured success and accolades (or at least not embarrassment and criticism). Because our self-worth hinges on our performance, we work really hard at avoiding things that are new and different.

Think about things you’re not doing because you might not be good at them. Do you avoid joining the softball team because you might look foolish? Have you given up on dating because you’re tired of the rejection? Do you avoid parties and get-togethers because they’re a waste of time?

How do you play it safe in your life? Are there opportunities that you’ve passed up or things you’ve quit or haven’t even bothered trying because you might not be good at them?

The flip side is that we may also continue to do unsatisfying things for the same reasons—fear of failure, embarrassment, criticism, rejection, and not being as good as everyone else. Chris, the high school teacher, is a good example of this. He’s clearly unhappy in his job, but he stays, because it’s what he’s always done and he knows he’s good at it. Starting over with a new job or career feels daunting. Sometimes we choose the devil we know over the uncertainty of making a change. In these circumstances, our perfectionism and pursuit of achievement above all else can keep us from pursuing new opportunities that could lead to growth, creativity, greater success, and satisfaction.

Are there things that you continue to do or relationships you maintain because you’re afraid a change will be worse than what you’re doing now?

Relationships

Relationships are another area where we pay a steep price for our perfectionism. First, we generally don’t prioritize our relationships. We’re all about work first and play later. And let’s be honest, the work never ends, so we don’t play! Fear and busyness cause us to put relationships, like hobbies, into the “unnecessary” category. But this leaves us unsatisfied and questioning what’s wrong with us.

Being connected to and accepted by others is a universal human desire. Humans were designed to depend on each other and live in community. But over the years, across Western culture, and particularly in America, we’ve promoted work, individual achievement, and independence over interdependence, cooperation, and balanced living. Our fierce independence has translated into permission to work ourselves to death, pushing people away and insisting that we can do it all ourselves.

Understandably, it sometimes feels easier to do everything ourselves. When we rely on others, we can be let down and frustrated, but focusing on achievement over relationships can be a lonely and painful experience. We all want to feel understood, loved, and needed. We want to care for others and be cared for. We want to belong. Perfectionism can be a barrier to connection by making us feel separate, different, and less than.

Relationships require our emotional and physical presence. Our relationships will suffer if we’re putting the bulk of our time and energy into working, training, or pursuing our next goal. We can get so busy or goal-driven that we don’t prioritize quality time with our friends or family. Some perfectionists are physically present in their relationships but mentally distracted. Your mind may be caught up in ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Or you may just be juggling so many things that you’re perpetually distracted. It’s entirely possible to be in the same physical space but not be connected to others. Laurie, whose husband just wanted her to sit down and watch an entire movie with him. He wanted to connect with her, put his head on her lap, and laugh at the same jokes with her. Instead, she would take out her laptop and multitask or get up to wash some dishes. Her husband felt rejected and taken for granted. It didn’t seem like Laurie really cared about spending time with him.

Have you neglected your relationships? Do you spend quality time with your partner or family? Have you lost touch with friends because you’re too busy?

In addition to quality time, relationships also require vulnerability. You may be married and have plenty of friends but wonder if you feel truly connected to them. In these cases, perfectionism can act as a shield that we use to keep people—our coworkers, our family, our friends, even our spouse and children—at a distance, allowing them to see only the parts of us that we feel are perfect or pleasing. But relationships without depth and vulnerability can feel shallow and leave us questioning whether we’re truly loved and accepted. Deep inside, we may still be afraid that if we show our messy, imperfect selves, we won’t be loved. That fear of not being good enough convinces us to keep the imperfect pieces of ourselves hidden.

Do your friends and family know the real you? Do you share your secrets and intimate thoughts and dreams, or do you tend keep relationships superficial? Do you confide in others about your struggles, worries, and failures?

Do you worry about what your friends and family would think if they knew your inner thoughts or missteps?

If perfectionism has been a barrier to deep connection with others, how have your relationships suffered as a result?

Perfectionists can also be quite critical of others. If we demand perfection from our spouse, kids, or coworkers, we’re probably frequently frustrated with them, and this frustration often comes out as criticism. Frequent and harsh criticism hurts relationships. It doesn’t feel good to be criticized. People will naturally pull away from someone who is always pointing out their flaws and telling them they’re doing things wrong. People may tiptoe around, afraid to upset us, feeling like they can’t be themselves around us because of our intolerance for imperfection. Our friends and family may be outwardly angry with us for the way we criticize them. Or, more likely, they put up with our perfectionist criticism but are secretly resentful of it. Our critical and controlling behaviors may or may not be effective at getting others to behave as we feel they should, but odds are, they’re damaging our relationships.

How have your relationships been negatively affected by your critical and controlling behaviors? If you’re not sure, consider telling your close friends and family that you are working on changing and that it would be helpful to understand how your criticism impacts them. Or try to put yourself in their shoes and think about how it might feel to be criticized regularly.

Might your relationships be better if you could be more accepting of other people’s imperfections? How?

What Perfectionist Traits Do You Most Want to Change?

As we move through this book, we’ll take an even deeper look at the major ways that perfectionism costs us physical health, relationships, fun, opportunities, creativity, peace of mind, deep connection with others, and self-acceptance. And we’ll learn ways we can change these patterns. Before we move on, try to identify a few of the changes you most want to make.

What do you do as a perfectionist that you’d like to stop doing?

What does perfectionism prevent you from doing? Is there an opportunity you’d pursue or a risk you would take if perfectionism weren’t standing in your way?

Which of your relationships do you most want to change or repair?

Does Your Perfectionism Have Any Benefits?

To be fair, perfectionism isn’t all bad. I want to assure you that the goal of this book isn’t for you to throw out all of the traits that have contributed to your success and accomplishments. Many of them are beneficial, and with modification, they can be important pieces of creating the life you want.

However, as we’ve noted, perfection isn’t achievable, and in trying to pursue it, we often create a great deal of suffering for ourselves and others. But with some tweaks, we can be successful and fulfilled. It’s important that we distinguish unhealthy perfectionism from healthy striving for excellence and hard work. So, let’s consider which aspects of your perfectionism are worth keeping and how we can adjust them to work better for you.

How is perfectionism helpful or beneficial to you?

Which perfectionist traits are you reluctant to give up?

What concerns you about giving up perfectionism? Do you think you can still achieve your goals without perfectionism?

How do you think your life might be better if you could tame your perfectionism?

Summary

Many of you have been willing to pay the steep price that comes with perfectionism, but you picked up this book because perfectionism also causes some problems in your life. Now that you’ve got a clearer picture of how perfectionism can contribute to stress, overworking, missed opportunities, and feeling disconnected and lonely, you’re probably able to see how modifying some of your perfectionist traits can bring more contentment to your life. Moving forward, we’re going to look at where these perfectionist traits came from. Gaining a greater understanding of the roots of our perfectionism can help us to be both more self-compassionate and more adept at changing them.

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