Are You a Perfectionist?
Thankfully, I’m not a perfectionist. I learned long ago that striving to be perfect is too stressful. But as this National Public Radio podcast reveals, numerous people have suffered from perfectionism, including such notables as Steve Jobs, Barbra Streisand, and Martha Stewart.
What about you? You can tell that you are a perfectionist if you set excessively high standards, strive for flawlessness, are overly critical of yourself, and are concerned about what other people think.
A perfectionist isn’t just a high achiever on steroids. High achievers can be satisfied with doing a great job, even if they don’t completely meet their goals. For perfectionists, on the other hand, anything less than perfection is seen as failure. In addition, while high achievers take pride in their own and others’ accomplishments, perfectionists tend to notice minor mistakes they (and others) have made.
For a long time, experts blamed perfectionism on parents who overemphasized achievement or made their love conditional on their kids’ meeting certain goals. But now there’s research suggesting that the genes that parents pass along may play a larger role. In studies of identical and fraternal twins, the identical twins had much more similar scores on measures of perfectionism and anxiety than the fraternal twins did, which suggests that their genetics played a bigger role than their environment.
Nevertheless, many psychologists believe that perfectionism is triggered by parents who instill the message that “you’re not good enough.” In fact, there’s evidence that perfectionism is increasing, particularly among children who face excessive pressure from their parents to achieve.
Other experts think that genetics may set a predisposition for perfectionism, but that environment and experiences can affect it greatly. One psychologist cites children as young as three who are distraught when they discover their shoelaces are of different lengths.
Perfectionism doesn’t seem like an easy condition to overcome. If you’re afflicted by perfectionism, you might try to distinguish realistic expectations from unrealistic ones. And difficult though it’s likely to be, show your weaknesses, and don’t be surprised if others see you as genuine as a result. In fact, don’t just allow yourself to make mistakes; celebrate them.
Some psychologists use exposure therapy to help their patients cope with perfectionism. This entails making small mistakes and not fixing them. Needless to say, this is not a popular approach, but apparently some perfectionists eventually learn that a small mistake isn’t the end of the world.
Which do you suppose is more challenging—being a perfectionist yourself or working with people who are perfectionists? What’s your experience?