The Question

Are You a Perfectionist? Here Are 6 Little-Known Signs

Let's say you used to have a reputation as a perfectionist back in high school when you were a member of the choir. But time's gone by, and you haven't been able to practice in a few years. Then, your friend from back home asks a major favor: Would you sing at her wedding? Of course, you agree: You just have to get back into the swing of it. But then you don't practice, and you don't practice, and you don't practice, and suddenly the wedding is next week. You've felt terrible about it the whole time, but it's hardly the behavior of a perfectionist, is it? Actually, it just might be.

Seeing a Perfectionist in the Mirror

"Perfectionist" is kind of the opposite of a backhanded compliment. Even if it's meant as criticism, it's easy to take as an assurance that everything you do, you do perfectly. The only problem is, perfectionists don't do everything perfectly — nobody does. That's why a lot of people with perfectionist tendencies can't identify them as such. After all, they don't see what they do as being perfect, so how could they be perfectionists?

It's true, and you might be one of those imperfectly aware perfectionists. Here are a few warning signs to look for in yourself and others:

1. Thinking and acting in extremes. No half measures for you. When you're on a diet, it's nothing but water and rice crackers and thinly sliced shadows ... until the second your willpower fails you and you have one tiny cookie. But now that your perfect diet is broken, there's nothing stopping you from wolfing down the whole box. It's not healthy behavior (and we're not just talking about the cookie binge at the end).

2. Procrastination. This is maybe the most counterintuitive trait of perfectionists. But what it really comes down to is a fear of failure. Many perfectionists have a habit of putting off the tasks they're not super confident about, sometimes avoiding them altogether. That's because it's sometimes more uncomfortable to do something mediocre than it is not to do it at all.

3. Difficulty finishing projects. This is something probably a lot of us can relate to. Whether it's a paper for school, a major art project, or knitting a sweater from your cat's fur, you just can't seem to get to finish. That's because even as you close in on the end goal, you're thinking up something else to make it better. It can really get in the way of feeling okay about yourself and your work.

Side note: basing your sense of self-worth on the quality of your work is also a sign of perfectionism. Remember, you still have value as a human being, even if not everything you do is a grand slam.

4. Trouble delegating. It's not that you don't trust your family, friends, and co-workers to do the job right, it's just that ... well, the only way to be sure is to do it yourself. But all that responsibility adds up fast, and only serves to stress you out more.

5. Putting up walls. A lot of perfectionists find they have a hard time making friends because making friends means making yourself vulnerable, and if there's one thing a perfectionist hates, it's risking rejection. But the irony is that having supportive friends is a great tool to help you face rejection head-on and smoothly move past it.

6. Fixating on past mistakes. Have you ever heard the phrase, "no use crying over spilt milk"? It might not be any use, but perfectionists might agonize over that dropped carton for days, weeks, even years. The thing about perfectionism is that it's not about everything that went right — and a lot of it goes right, a lot of the time; it's about the one thing that went wrong.

Embracing Imperfection

Perfectionism isn't a mental illness, and identifying with any or even all of these symptoms doesn't mean you've been "diagnosed" with it. But it has been linked with mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety disorders, and it's also strongly correlated with feelings of guilt and shame. Here's a piece of advice that will probably strike you as both very helpful and unbelievably frustrating: Just let go.

Perfectionism is rooted in fear of failure. In the words of Dr. Brené Brown, a professor of social work at the University of Houston, "Perfectionism is not about striving for excellence or healthy striving ... [It's a way of thinking that says] 'If I look perfect, do it perfectly, work perfect and live perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame, and judgment.'" Her recommendation? Dip your toes in vulnerability. Allow your less-than-stellar work to be seen. Let yourself feel afraid, and do the thing that scares you anyway. Will you make some missteps? Of course — but better missteps than no steps at all.

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If you or someone you know is struggling with perfectionism, Stephen Guise's "How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism" may help you. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The Problem With Perfectionism

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 18, 2017

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