The Perfectionism Trap—And How to Escape It

Perfectionism is a big problem today among ambitious professionals—and increasingly among young people in general. It’s also widely misunderstood, and even misappropriated as a badge of honor by some.

Let’s break it down. First, what is it?

Perfectionism entails striving to be flawless. It typically includes overly critical self-evaluations and excessive concerns about negative evaluations from others.

Perfectionism entails striving for unrealistic or even unattainable goals, followed by disappointment when we fail to achieve them. That’s followed by cognitive dissonance from misalignment between perfect self-identity and imperfect performance. For a perfectionist, low performance automatically means low self-worth.

Fundamentally, the assumption behind perfectionism is that the only route to self-acceptance and peace is flawlessness. It’s less about a desire for self-improvement and much more about seeking acceptance and approval. It entails conflating our identity and worth with our performance and accomplishments.

 

Signs of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is common. There are many signs of it that we can see all around us if we look:

  • Having unrealistic standards or expectations
  • Striving to be flawless
  • Fixating on mistakes
  • Being overly critical of yourself and not feeling good enough
  • Judging others excessively
  • Having low self-esteem and self-identifying as a loser
  • Being overly cautious and feeling afraid to fail
  • Wanting to control situations to avoid negative judgment
  • Feeling defensive about feedback
  • Being prone to blame ourselves, even when we’re not at fault
  • Feeling pushed toward goals by a fear of missing them, versus being pulled toward the prospect of reaching them
  • Focusing exclusively on results, while not being able to enjoy the process of trying, learning, and growing

Perfectionists can be consumed with self-monitoring and carefully managing their impressions—and sometimes with rumination and self-recrimination. They’re especially sensitive even to the potential for negative (or even not positive enough) judgment by others and for rejection.

Perfectionism is a problem because perfection is an impossible standard for those of us who don’t wear a cape.

Perfectionists are under a regular barrage of self-imposed pressure. They put up a front of flawlessness and purity in part to hide their flaws. In some cases, they’re prone to all-or-nothing thinking, in which only perfection is acceptable. Otherwise, they remove themselves entirely from the situation.

We should be clear about the downsides of perfectionism while also being understanding of its causes and compassionate about the suffering that comes with it. According to the research, many perfectionists learned this mindset in their formative years, with conditional acceptance from parents or other guardians: I love you when you behave as I expect, and I don’t when you don’t.

This conditional giving and taking of love and acceptance can be quite painful, and even traumatic, for children. Some parents withhold affection or abandon their children (emotionally or physically). Others control their children. These behaviors can instill perfectionist beliefs and tendencies.

 

Perfectionism on the Rise

According to recent research, perfectionism is increasing among young people, and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of children and adolescents are prone to perfectionism. It’s not surprising in our age of social media and influencers—and the impossible comparisons they tee up.

In a meta-analysis of perfectionism rates among more than 40,000 college students from 1989 to 2016 (the first such study of its kind), researchers found significant increases among recent undergraduates in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. The rates doubled, from 9 to 18 percent, over that period.

“On average,” said Andrew Hill (one of the researchers), “young people are more perfectionistic than they used to be,” and “the belief that other people expect you to be perfect has increased the most.”

Researcher Brene Brown suggests that perfectionism isn’t a binary matter in which we either have it or we don’t. Rather, she suggests that we all fall on a continuum of perfectionistic tendencies, ranging from occasional and situational bouts of it to “compulsive, chronic, and debilitating” versions of it. Ouch.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Consequences of Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” -Anne Wilson Schaef

How does it affect us? Turns out, it can be quite debilitating.

In a nutshell, perfectionism leads to lower achievement along with more stress. A double whammy.

Perfectionism inhibits our work.

It harms our relationships.

Perfectionism causes needless suffering.

Even worse, there’s a negative spiral at work. Perfectionists will face a new or challenging situation and hear all sorts of psychological alarm bells. There will be a fear of failing and looking bad. In trying something new, they’ll see that they’re not good at it from the start (which is true for nearly all of us), leading them to quit. So they rarely stick with new things. They prefer their comfort zone. This “life paralysis” entails missing an array of opportunities due to their fear of falling short.

“To be a learner, you’ve got to be willing to be a fool.” -George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

Given their tendency to fall short of their impossible standards, they can also start to develop an impression of themselves as failures, spinning a negative tale about their past that comes to haunt them going forward.

Perfectionism can reduce not only productivity but also creativity, inspiration, and joy. Insidiously, it can lead to procrastination, with people postponing tasks due to the potential negative judgment that can come from falling short. This “perfectionism-procrastination loop” as it’s called can lead to reduced productivity and missed deadlines, as perfectionists focus too much on unimportant details and lose sight of the big picture.

 

Perfectionism can have perverse unintended consequences. Though perfectionists are aiming to avoid social rejection by appearing flawless, sometimes they come across as aloof and inauthentic, thereby leading to social disconnection, the very thing they wanted to avoid in the first place. It can lead to estrangement or alienation from others as well as from our authentic self.

It gets worse. According to a meta-analysis of 284 studies and other research, perfectionism is correlated with anxiety, substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, clinical depression, self-harm, and suicide. In the research, it’s linked with psychological distress and low self-esteem, as well as with fear of failure (see my article on “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear”) and workaholism.

 

Badge of Honor?

These days, perfectionism is widely misunderstood. Unfortunately, some people wear the perfectionist label as a badge of honor, perhaps to diminish the downsides while highlighting the benefits, such as attention to quality and detail. But it’s not a badge of honor.

Here we must distinguish between perfection (which is impossible in human pursuits) and perfectionism, and between the pursuit of excellence (which is positive) and perfectionism (which can be quite harmful).

Perfectionism ≠ the pursuit of excellence. That’s a myth.

Perfectionism ≠ striving to be your best. A rationalization. 

Perfectionism is maladaptive and self-destructive. There’s much research on that.

“Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.” -Professor Andrew Hill, York St. John University

It’s even a standard answer to the dreaded job interview question of “What are your weaknesses?” or “What are your worst traits?” Many people answer that they’re perfectionists, hoping that the interviewer will take it as a positive since it shows they’re so committed to high standards and to details.

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

What to Do About It

We know it’s common and that it operates on a spectrum. So what to do about it? Here are nine research-based tips:

  1. Practice “self-compassion”: extending kindness and understanding to ourselves when encountering setbacks or failures, recognizing these are universal.
  2. Engage in positive self-talk: an inner voice that focuses more on potential and growth and less on critique and deficit.
  3. Learn to value the importance of process more, versus an exclusive focus on results (many of which are not fully in our control).
  4. Adopt a growth mindset (belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed), instead of a fixed mindset (belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents are static and cannot be changed).
  5. Develop what Brene Brown calls “shame resilience”: an “ability to recognize shame when we experience it, and move through it in a constructive way that allows us to maintain authenticity and grow from our experiences.”
  6. Practice mindfulness: a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and environment, ideally through a gentle, nurturing, and nonjudgmental lens.
  7. Use a checklist for discrete tasks, instead of focusing on an amorphous (and impossible) standard of perfection, allowing you to see the progress you’re making along the way. Enjoy the feeling of progress, and ideally see it visually on a progress board.
  8. Monitor progress by using a regular review (weekly or another interval) to show steps forward and give you some psychological distance from the current distress associated with feeling unworthy.
  9. Unpack your past successes and revisit the processes you used to make progress and overcome obstacles, while also remembering that there were no guarantees of success along the way. This should help you get good at overcoming fear.

 

The “Gifts of Imperfection”

No doubt perfectionism is a formidable foe, and a powerful inhibitor of our wellbeing. I like how Brene Brown flips the script and talks about the “gifts of imperfection.” That’s right: the gifts.

She notes that our imperfections make us human. And they can bring us unexpected benefits, such as courage (to be who we truly are even when we fear judgment or disappointment), compassion (to see that everyone has their own struggles), and connection (to recognize our shared humanity and see ourselves in the real stories of others, with their messy ups and downs).

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you falling into some of the traps of perfectionism? (Or your friends and colleagues?)
  • How is it showing up in your life and work?
  • Which of the nine perfectionism trap busters noted above are you game to try?

Let me know how it goes. I wish you well with it.

 


Postscript: Quotations on Perfectionism

  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “There is no perfection, only beautiful versions of brokenness.” -Shannon L. Alder
  • “At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” -Michael Law
  • “Perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. It doesn’t believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly—and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner’s work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn’t know how to say, ‘Good try,’ or ‘Job well done.’” -Julia Cameron, Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance

 

Recommended Books on Perfectionism and Related Topics:

Note: Shirzad Chamine, best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has identified nine mental “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. Several of them relate to perfectionism:

  • Judge: constantly finding fault with self, others, or circumstances. (This is the “master saboteur,” according to Chamine.)
  • Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts.
  • Stickler: excessively needing perfection, order, and organization.
  • Pleaser: trying to gain acceptance by helping, pleasing, or saving others.
  • Controller: anxiously needing to control situations or others.
  • Hyper-achiever: depending on constant achievement for self-acceptance.

 

Related Articles:

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Living a Divided Life?

The young woman in a corporate job whose true love is animals. Unless she makes a change, she’s looking at a long slog in her career.

A young college graduate on the business track who discovers he has no real interest in any of the business functions. He’s fascinated by medicine but feels trapped because of the costs of switching over.

The frustrated executive in a family business, itching to get out and be creative, entrepreneurial, impactful, and generous. What will he do?

Many of us are leading what author and educator Parker Palmer calls a “divided life”—a life in which we’re separated from our whole, true self.

Divided lives are common, for many reasons. Many of us were so busy doing things in our formative years that we never took much time to stop and think about who we are and what we really want to do in the world. A costly mistake, but one that we can rectify.

We’re under subtle but powerful pressure from family, friends, and mentors, feeling the heavy weight of outside expectations on our shoulders. Our school systems give us siloed education in disparate fields, making it hard for us to do the necessary sensemaking and wayfinding for choosing a career path wisely.

And so we end up leading a divided life.

 

The Problem of a Divided Life

Palmer lists the signs that we may be living a divided life:

  • “We refuse to invest ourselves in our work…
  • We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values…
  • We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirit.
  • We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked….
  • We sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.
  • We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.”

With a divided life, we sense incongruity between our inner world and our outer one. We feel inauthentic. We miss out on “the life-giving energies of true self.” Palmer notes from experience (including bouts with deep, debilitating depression) that when we violate our true self, it resists us and holds our life in check… “until we honor its truth.”

It’s painful and shameful, because it feels like living a lie, since we’re not honoring our nature.

There is another way.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

 

The Alternative: Wholeness

Wholeness means staying faithful to ourselves. It means growing into what Palmer calls our “authentic selfhood,” regardless of whether it conforms to the expectations of others or pattern-maps to the conventional model of success.

Wholeness means choosing our own definition of success and blazing our own path in life. Not easy, surely, but bound to bring adventure and satisfaction, even for trying.

Wholeness means showing up in the world as we truly are, not as some hologram designed to please others.

“I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” –Chip Conley, author and entrepreneur, from our LIFE Entrepreneurs interview

 

Wholeness by Other Names

Palmer isn’t the only one to see the power of wholeness.

Brene Brown writes about a close cousin to it, about being “wholehearted”:

“Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

For Brown, a key aspect of wholeheartedness is authenticity, which she defines as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”

It sounds much easier than it is. That’s why she talks about the “audacity of authenticity.”

In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I noted the importance of “authentic integrity”: integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature. It means living in alignment with our core identity, including our purpose, values, strengths, and aspirations.

“I just felt like I’ve lived a life that was true to itself…. Anybody who’s ever hung out in an ‘old man bar’—you know what I’m talking about—sees what happens when you don’t let that part of yourself do its thing.”Mary Cutrufello, musician and songwriter, in our LIFE Entrepreneurs interview

Author and former CEO Bill George calls it “true north”: the internal compass that guides us successfully through life.

 

A Shadow Side

Being whole isn’t the same as being perfect. Sometimes we’re broken—or feel broken. We have flaws and hang-ups that can get us into trouble.

Being whole means embracing our whole selves, even the parts we don’t like. We’re all a work in progress.

“Accepting your shadow side is an essential part of being authentic.” -Bill George, best-selling author and former CEO

 

The Gifts of Imperfection

In a world awash in perfectionism, Brene Brown flips the script and talks about the “gifts of imperfection.” She notes that our imperfections are part of what makes us human, and they can bring us unexpected gifts, including courage, compassion, and connection:

  • Courage to be who we truly are even when we fear judgment or disappointment from others.
  • Compassion to see that everyone has their own struggles, leading us first to suffer with them in spirit and then to want to help them.
  • Connection when we recognize our shared humanity and see ourselves in the true stories of others, including their heartaches and foibles.

Notably, these three gifts are important components of wholeheartedness.

“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” -Brené Brown

Living in the modern world in many ways pulls us away from wholeness. In some ways, it’s easier to live a divided life, and to avoid the vulnerability and struggle that can accompany authenticity and imperfection.

But at what cost in the end? What life will our future self be glad we crafted?

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you honoring your nature, or holding back?
  • Have you been upholding your values?
  • Are you investing yourself in your work, or phoning it in?
  • Do you let yourself be fully seen, including your flaws?
  • Are you clear about your purpose, values, and aspirations for your life?
  • Do you feel whole?

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Divided Lives and Whole Lives

  • “…there can be no greater suffering than living a lifelong lie…. in the end what will matter most is knowing that we stayed true to ourselves.” -Parker Palmer
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Bring your whole self to work. I don’t believe we have a professional self Monday through Friday and a real self the rest of the time. It is all professional and it is all personal.” -Sheryl Sandberg
  • “I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as who I really am. I can’t think of a more graced way to die than with the knowledge that I showed up here as my true self, the best I knew how, able to engage life freely and lovingly because I had become fierce with reality.” -Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

 

Recommended Books and Videos

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!