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Are you a perfectionist? How to understand what is causing it

October 17, 2022 - 13 min read

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Perfectionism, a silent threat

Causes for perfectionism

Effects of perfectionism on our health

It's never too late to get help

For the future

Being a perfectionist is exhausting. You're constantly trying to outdo yourself and strive for nothing less than flawless. 

As a perfectionist, you're not just an overachiever: you have unrealistic standards that propel you to achieve perfection, and your self-worth depends on it. It's draining, but this is how it’s always been. 

Perfectionism is more common than you think. Studies have found that perfectionism rates have been rising for years, especially among young people. Pressures to have a successful career, live a comfortable lifestyle, and meet certain beauty or behavioral standards lead to mental health struggles. 

Diving deep into what causes perfectionism will help you better understand yourself and treat yourself with more kindness. And when you accept that you're a human being who makes mistakes, your physical and mental health will thank you. 

But it's not easy to figure out the vicious cycle of perfectionism. This article will explain how you developed your perfectionistic tendencies, what it does to you, and how to manage them.

 

Perfectionism, a silent threat

There’s a chance you view your perfectionism as great quality. Sure, it’s helped you work hard and achieve high grades, excel in extracurriculars, or earn promotions quickly. That’s because there are two kinds of perfectionism you might experience: 

  • One of them is adaptive perfectionism, where you have high standards but you don’t overexert yourself to achieve them. It means you can acknowledge your strengths and limitations while striving to do your best. Studies have found that perfectionism has positive benefits, like high motivation and engagement. Adaptive perfectionism motivates you to work hard to achieve presumably realistic goals, but you’re always in control.
  • Maladaptive perfectionism can be unhealthy and damaging. It creates negative beliefs, like the idea that your work is never good enough or that anything less than perfect work isn’t acceptable. You seek a certain validation that doesn't exist, pushing yourself harder to succeed. This can lead to burnout, negative self-talk, and lower mental health and well-being.

It's beneficial to be motivated and strive to always do your best, but not if that pursuit of your best inhibits your ability to celebrate your wins and admire your effort. That's why you need to accept that trying to be perfect isn’t realistic.

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Causes for perfectionism

It would be great if there was one universal answer to what causes perfectionism, but there isn't. Everyone’s life experiences — from childhood to trauma or education — shape who they are. Because of this, it’s hard to pinpoint what causes perfectionism for everyone.

Learning all the different causes of perfectionism helps you reflect on who you are and how your life experiences have shaped you. 

Here are five causes of perfectionism:

1. Your parents

You depend on your parents from a young age to protect and care for you. But their behavior greatly impacts how you grow up and shapes your values, work ethic, mindset, and more. Your parents could have set unrealistic expectations that influenced you to view any mistakes as utter failures. Or perhaps it was your other loved ones who put the pressure on you to be perfect.

Research has found that perfectionistic parents influence how their children view success, and it turns them into perfectionists too.

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2. Turbulence and uncertainty

You could strive for maladaptive perfectionism as a defense mechanism against turbulent times in your life. Maybe you've just ended a long-term relationship or graduated from university and don't know what your next move will be. That turbulence might make you feel like being in control and executing projects perfectly will help you solve your other problems. It's your way of reaffirming more certainty and order. 

Studies have found that vulnerable perfectionists will ruminate in response to situations where they feel helpless. This rumination is rooted in self-uncertainty, self-doubt, and validation. You become self-critical as you become responsible for creating order and structure in your life to maintain control.

3. Culture of your surroundings

Has anyone said, "You seem different" to you lately? The culture of your new or sometimes existing surroundings could cause your perfectionistic behavior. Your perfectionism manifested because of the attitude of your new community and its expectations of you, which influenced your daily life.

4. Your Peers

Growing up, you might have constantly been comparing yourself to your friends, siblings, and classmates around your age. This is how socially prescribed perfectionism grows. Socially prescribed perfectionism falls under the category of maladaptive perfectionism because it encourages you to seek validation from others. 

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But all that time scrolling through social media, comparing yourself to others, and relying on external validation lowers self-worth and causes negative emotions and low self-esteem. Your desire to be perfect ends up hurting your health by suggesting that you aren’t good enough or mistakes aren’t an option.

5. Mental health issues

Symptoms of certain mental health issues cause and help encourage perfectionism. Research has found perfectionistic traits in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders, and sometimes depression. This anxiety could tell you that you need to do something perfectly to control your stress and limit any potential bad outcomes.

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Effects of perfectionism on our health

You might wonder, "Is perfectionism a disorder?" While the answer is no, the symptoms of perfectionism will impact your physical and mental health

You've learned what causes perfectionism, but now it's time to understand what it does to your health. Here are some types of conditions that perfectionism might develop into:

  • Anxiety disorders like social anxiety, panic disorder, and social phobia
  • Acute or chronic stress
  • Depression
  • Orthorexia Nervosa or other eating disorders

But it also causes other conditions that impact your wellness. Here are a few other impacts of perfectionism:

  • Increased feelings of loneliness
  • Developed fear of failure
  • Difficulty keeping up relationships with friends or loved ones
  • Inability to live in the present
  • Greater impatience and frustration

It's never too late to get help

Asking for help is a sign of strength. If you recognize unhealthy signs of perfectionism within yourself, it's time to fight against it. 

Remember that you're in control, no matter how you developed these high standards. It's going to take plenty of self-awareness and sustained effort, but you're ready to do it.

Here are five ways to fight against perfectionism:

  1. Change your goal setting: Reflect on your previous goal-setting methods, and think about how they led you to set unrealistic goals that fuelled your perfectionism. Try using the SMART goal-setting method to help you create meaningful and achievable goals for your success.
  2. Focus on enjoying things: Here's a big announcement: not everything needs to be perfect. Do your best to live in the present and enjoy the moment for what it is. Make your learning opportunities meaningful, purposeful, and fun.
  3. Look on the bright side: A positive attitude goes a long way. Put a positive spin on any imperfection or change of plans. Maybe things don't turn out exactly how you hoped, but that doesn't mean it’s a waste of time and energy.
  4. Set a timer: Sometimes, when you have unlimited time to do a task, you spend way too much time trying to make it perfect. Try setting a timer for how long you have to work on something. It'll help you stay more focused, cut down on procrastination, and accept the results for what they are.
  5. Seek professional help: The mental health issues that perfectionism may turn into aren't things you need to face alone. Try seeking out a mental health professional for the care and support you need. Your professional might suggest different methods or strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help your well-being and health.

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For the future

Learning what causes perfectionism sometimes takes you all the way back to childhood. It forces you to go on a journey of self-discovery and learn more about yourself, which is daunting. But doing so means you're actively trying to enrich your future. You want a future full of purpose, meaning, and good health. 

Being a perfectionist means that you have ambition, determination, and motivation to succeed at your goals. But there’s a fine line between having healthy and unhealthy perfectionism. Your desire to succeed shouldn’t cost you your physical and mental health. You should feel energized to work hard, not completely drained. 

Remember that at the end of the day, you’re trying your best. Your mistakes will always be learning opportunities, and there’s always a second chance. Focus on what you can control and trust that the rest will work out.

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Published October 17, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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