Once upon a time, it used to take me up to 12 hours of agonized obsession to produce one article worthy of being published.
I would sit at my desk, hunched over my notebook staring into the blank Word document for what seemed like hours, my mind swarming feverishly with ideas. The only problem was that whenever I began writing I would instantly stop after one sentence, read through it, re-read through it, delete it, write it again, re-write it again, delete it again, re-write it again … you get the picture.
Being a perfectionist is crippling. There is nothing as excruciating in the creative world as being a person bursting with passion, potential and ideas, but not being able to express this with unbridled freedom. The same goes for the rest of life: perfectionism cripples us in every arena, whether it be academic, artistic, scientific, personal or interpersonal.
It’s no wonder that many of us perfectionist types wind up with anxiety, depression, and a sense of haunting unfulfillment and personal failure.
6 Symptoms of the Perfectionist Personality
Being a perfectionist is not simply about harboring the immobilizing desire to be perfect; it extends much deeper than that. Here are some well-known and not-so-well-known signs that you might have a perfectionist personality:
- You have low self-esteem as a result of finding your self-worth in what you do rather than who you innately are.
- Because you derive your self-esteem from the external world, you are highly sensitive to criticism or rejection of any kind from other people, as this causes you to genuinely believe that you are “worthless,” “a failure,” “stupid” and “bad.”
- You are a people-pleaser as a result of wanting to avoid having your self-worth shattered by others and their criticism.
- You have the mistaken belief that you can control the outcome of circumstances, and what other people think and say about you if only you are “good” enough. This is a self-protective mechanism that prevents you from feeling your own inner fragility and lack of self-esteem.
- You are therefore a control freak, and find it hard to let loose, be spontaneous, and relax.
- Because of your inability to flow with life, you become anxious and depressed.
You might also notice that when you become anxious or depressed, you begin the cycle of perfectionism again by trying to “be the best” and to control the outcome of what you do to gain praise, approval, rewards, and acceptance.
Consciously you might be aware of all this obsessive, cyclical behavior like I was, but yet you might not know how to stop. You might feel as though you are desperately peddling a hamster wheel that is getting you nowhere, and yet you don’t know how to jump off because of all the momentum you have built through years of psychological habituation.
How to Stop Being the Perfectionist Junkie – 3 Lessons
There is a lot of seemingly “rational” advice out there for those with perfectionist personality types, but a lot of it is completely unhelpful. Why? Because I suspect that most of the advice given is from people who haven’t struggled with crippling perfectionism, and also, most of the advice focuses on curing the symptoms, not the root cause of perfectionism.
For example, I have never found the following pieces of advice, “Learn to relax,” “See the middle ground” and, “Surrender” to be very helpful because they only skim the surface of what it means to suffer from a perfectionist personality.
My advice is to go to the root cause of your suffering first. This is what I learned:
1. Explore the deeper need behind your perfectionism.
Here are a few examples. Firstly, you might be intolerant and impatient towards your fellow colleagues about a deadline, resenting their lax attitude. What is behind your intolerance? What need can you uncover? You might find that you have a deeper need to feel job security as you worry that your team’s behavior might impact your position. Or perhaps you might feel the need to be perfectly likable, presentable, and brilliant at conversation when meeting new people. What is the deeper need behind these desires and behaviors? You might discover that you have a deeper need to find acceptance, belonging or a sense of pride in yourself. How can you better meet this need without trying to be perfect?
Whenever we feel the need to control someone, some aspect of ourselves, or something in our lives, there is always an underlying feeling of psychological or emotional instability that is trying to be soothed. When you consciously discover the underlying need behind your destructive behavior, you can approach your pain, worry, and frustration from a place of understanding.
2. Cultivate unconditional self-acceptance.
When I struggled with intense perfectionism, self-love was a completely alien concept to me. I wholeheartedly believed that I was just as worthy as what people thought, felt, and said about me; and if that was bad, terrible, or somehow lacking, then I was the scum of the earth. Unfortunately, many of us who grew up in households with critical and judgmental parents that withheld their love when we were “bad” and rewarded us with it when we were “good,” develop perfectionist complexes.
When you come to realize that what people think, feel or say about you has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with their own biases, assumptions and misconceptions, you can slowly untangle yourself from the web of deception you have been conditioned into.
Using your chaotic, frantic emotions as triggers, you can start to become conscious of the many patterns of thought and belief that accompany you in everyday life. You can use these terrible feelings to say to yourself, “STOP. How can I love/accept myself no matter what happens?”
Slowly, as you learn to interrupt your patterns of perfectionism, and question the thoughts and feelings that arise within you, you can shift your goal of pleasing other people to pleasing yourself.
3. Perfectionism is only one character at your table.
Many people get very wound up in a victimized perception of themselves as being “chronic perfectionists,” or “raging control freaks.” While having a personality prone to perfectionism can be really tough to deal with, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of victimhood and dramatization.
It took me a long time to realize that the perfectionist “character” is just one facet of “me.” Like the knights at the round table, realize that The Perfectionist is only one of many shadow characters within you that needs to be acknowledged, but respectfully put in its place.
It’s also important that you honor the gifts that The Perfectionist character within you brings as well. For example, I discovered that my Perfectionist character allows me to honor deadlines and produce well-thought-out and quality pieces of writing. But when this character is out of control, it fuels me with fear, tension, anger, and irritability.
Being conscious of your over-identification with The Perfectionist will allow you to keep the process of growth and healing alive rather than stagnant.
Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, what will your next step be? I recommend taking some time out to reflect alone and undisturbed about your life. How do you treat yourself when The Perfectionist personality character overtakes the seat of power within you? How do you treat other people? Furthermore, reflect on the opportunity this pain and difficulty in your life brings you to experience true, unconditional self-acceptance.
Every white needs its black to be appreciated and understood, and perfectionism might just be your doorway to experiencing – and understanding – true self-love.