The key to understanding what causes perfectionism is to realize that it has nothing to do with achievement and everything to do with emotion.
As a society, we tend to play fast and loose with the term perfectionism.
For some of us, it’s an irritating personality quirk we ascribe to people who are a little too uptight and obsessive for our tastes. Like the roommate who studies chemistry on Friday nights or the spouse who can’t stop tinkering with the living room furniture layout:
- Ugh, he’s such a perfectionist…
But sometimes we describe ourselves as perfectionistic to signal how hard-working we are without seeming arrogant. Think of the humblebraggy job applicant in an interview:
- I guess I’d have to say my biggest weakness is that I’m kind of a perfectionist.
Far from a mild personality quirk or the false humility of the high-achiever, true perfectionism is hellish.
Picture the nastiest, cruelest person you know. Now imagine that their full-time job is to follow you around, close as your shadow, constantly criticizing and judging everything you do. All the while holding out the tantalizing promise that all your fears and insecurities will disappear if only you do things just right.
To the person who struggles with perfectionism, the incessant voice in their head is as real as the voice of the person across the room.
The costs and consequences of perfectionism
But perfectionism doesn’t just feel bad. Research consistently shows that high levels of perfectionism are linked to a host of negative clinical outcomes, from eating disorders and fibromyalgia to depression and suicide. Enough said.
But even outside of clinical disorders, perfectionism can lead to significant problems in daily life, impacting everything from our productivity and work performance to our relationships and physical health. Below are a few examples of some of the costs of perfectionism:
- Extreme Procrastination. While they may ultimately get a lot done, people who struggle with perfectionism are often terribly inefficient in their work, suffering from persistent and intense procrastination. After all, never starting is a good way to ensure we don’t fail.
- Opportunity Cost. Along with the inefficiency of perfectionism-driven procrastination comes the problem opportunity cost: All those extra hours and units of energy spent striving for perfection could have been spent on any number of more fulfilling activities and experiences.
- Chronic Stress. Perfectionism drives people to constantly do more, leading folks who struggle with it to take on far more projects, challenges, and stressors than they can reasonably handle. This surplus of to-dos quickly leads to chronic stress and burnout.
- Persistent Dissatisfaction. People who struggle with perfectionism have the above mentioned ever-present voice in their head reminding them of how much there is to do and how badly they should feel if they don’t accomplish it. Aside from the guilt and frustration that results from this persistent inner critic, long-standing perfectionism makes it difficult to truly enjoy things in life and find genuine satisfaction. It’s hard to enjoy the present when we’re always looking ahead to new tasks or behind to old failures.
Needless to say, perfectionism is far more serious than it’s usually presented. And yet, it’s an especially difficult problem to overcome, in part because we don’t really understand what causes perfectionism.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to try an unpack why perfectionism is such a sticky and persistent problem for many folks.
Specifically, I’m going to show how, just like the term perfectionism tends to be misunderstood (or at least misused), the psychological mechanics that sustain perfectionism are similarly misunderstood.
And if we can get a clearer picture of the mechanisms involved in perfectionism, we will have a much better shot at resolving it.
Perfectionism isn’t about achieving perfection.
We tend to think about perfectionism in terms of behaviors and outcomes—acing the exam, hitting our sales numbers each week, ensuring the dinner party goes just right, etc. In other words, perfectionism appears to be about perfecting things out there in the world.
This makes some sense given that the behaviors associated with perfectionism are visible and easy to spot: Staying at work late every night, reviewing the report for a fifth time, putting in an extra half hour on the elliptical, etc.
But just because behaviors are visible and easy to observe doesn’t mean they’re the whole story. Or even the most important part of the story. The way we think about perfectionism is strongly influenced by the way it looks; but looks, as we all know, can be deceiving.
Far from a mild personality quirk or the false humility of the high-achiever, true perfectionism is hellish.
Most people with perfectionism will admit that they know intuitively that on some level their expectations and efforts toward achieving perfect outcomes are both unrealistic and detrimental, that true perfection is impossible.
Which leads us to the central paradox of perfectionism: Perfectionists know that achieving perfection and doing things perfectly is impossible, and yet they feel driven to keep trying anyway.
What gives? What causes perfectionism if it’s not the drive to achieve perfection?
What Really Causes Perfectionism
Most perfectionism begins as a childhood response to some form of trauma (actual or perceived) and its emotional consequences:
- After a difficult divorce, an only child begins trying to “be perfect” because they believe the separation was somehow their fault and that never making mistakes will prevent future family disruptions and assuage their guilt.
- Because older brother was the good-looking, athletic one, and younger sister was the funny, charismatic one, the middle child learns to work inordinately hard in order to gain attention and affection.
- As the child of a violent and erratic alcoholic parent, an oldest sibling learns to obsessively plan for every possible contingency each afternoon when coming home from school in order to protect herself (and her siblings) and to feel safe.
In each case, the habit of striving for perfection was initially triggered by a disturbing situation and the need to ease a painful emotion.
This habit of striving for perfection becomes strengthened because on some level it works. On the one hand, it may actually prevent harm, as in the case of the child who obsessively plans for every possible contingency regarding their abusive parent.
But the habit of perfectionistic striving may also “work” in the sense that it provides relief from a painful feeling. By throwing themselves into their school work and getting good grades, the forgotten middle child is able to distract themselves (temporarily) from the sadness that comes from feeling dismissed and devalued by their parents.
Perfectionism isn’t about being perfect, it’s about feeling perfect.
Rinse and repeat for a few decades and you’ve got a strongly ingrained habit of striving for perfection in order to feel good (or at least less badly).
Each time a painful emotion arises, the brain remembers that perfectionistic striving leads to some emotional relief in the past, and so it “pushes” us toward that option in the present.
And each time we follow through with this push, we strengthen the connection between painful emotion and perfectionistic striving. Which makes that initial push stronger and stronger as time goes on. This is how vicious cycles get formed.
Perfectionists don’t engage in perfectionistic behaviors because they’re under the delusion that they’ll actually achieve perfection; they do it because it temporarily provides relief from a painful feeling.
What causes perfectionism isn’t the desire to be perfect—it’s the desire to feel perfect.
How to Reduce Perfectionism
Learning the true motivation for perfectionism—emotional relief—is essential to unlearning it, since it’s only once we understand what we really need, that we can address that need in a more productive and less distressing way.
Perfectionism Reduction 101
The first level of perfectionism reduction involves identifying our emotional triggers for perfectionistic behavior and substituting alternative coping strategies with fewer downsides. Here’s how to get started in 3 pretty simple steps:
STEP 1: Begin by using your perfectionism as a cue for emotional awareness.
When you start to notice yourself engaging in your usual perfectionistic behavior (like re-checking your work for the 5th time), use that as a reminder to check in with yourself emotionally. Ask yourself:
- What emotions am I feeling right now?
- How strong are they?
- What happened to trigger those emotions?
- What was I thinking about leading up to the perfectionistic behaviors?
STEP 2: Develop a collection of alternative coping strategies.
Use the information you gathered with the above questions to generate a “playbook” of alternative strategies based on the emotions that tend to trigger perfectionism for you.
For example, if loneliness is your trigger, you might call a friend who always picks up and is easy to talk to. Or send a random silly text to a sibling, or take the dog to the dog park, or whatever activity tends to help you feel more connected to people.
The point is to have a collection of go-to strategies ready ahead of time so that when the emotion strikes, you have several alternatives to perfectionism ready at hand and easy to implement.
STEP 3: Practice and experiment.
Realize that it’s going to take some time and repetition to break out of the habit of going straight to your perfectionistic behaviors. And it’s going to feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable. That’s how new learning and growth always feels.
At the same time, remember to have an experimental mindset: If Coping Strategy A doesn’t seem to be working for you, that doesn’t mean the whole project is a failure, just that you may need to experiment with a slightly different strategy.
Perfectionism Reduction 201
The first level of perfectionism reduction is an okay place to start—identifying the emotional triggers for perfectionistic behavior and substituting new, less destructive behaviors that meet the same emotional need as the perfectionism.
But here’s the secret to stepping up your game and really overcoming perfectionism for good: Realize that you don’t have to do anything in response to your emotions.
You can be aware of your painful emotions and really feel them without doing anything to try and reduce them or make them go away, including perfectionistic behaviors or any other coping strategy.
This is, by the way, the essence of mindfulness: To be aware without thinking or doing anything. Just observe.
Why would I just let my painful emotions happen without trying to reduce them? I’m not a masochist.
I get it. Just sitting with and tolerating uncomfortable emotions feels dumb, not to mention painful. From a young age, we’re taught to be fixers and problem-solvers, quickly taking action to make things right. The problem is, emotions aren’t a problem. Even the really painful ones. And there are consequences to treating them as if they were.
No amount of anger, sadness, regret, or any other emotion can hurt us because emotions themselves aren’t actually dangerous. But they do feel dangerous. And they feel like they’re going to last forever. Unless we do something about them, that is. Which is why most of us are in the habit of instantly trying to fix or distract ourselves from uncomfortable or painful emotions.
But this habit of immediately trying to make our feelings go away (via perfectionistic behaviors, for example), has a significant downside: We never get to see first hand what happens to emotions when they’re left to their own devices.
Don’t leave me hanging… What happens?!
Turns out… Not much. Again, this is the whole idea behind mindfulness. By just observing our emotions without trying to “fix” or run away from them, we get to learn experientially that it’s simply in their nature to be short-lived, to come and go quickly.
But if we always take action to reduce our emotion or distract ourselves from them, we never get the chance to really learn that for ourselves.
Wait, I’m confused… What exactly am I supposed to do? And how will this help my perfectionism?
The habit of always doing something in response to uncomfortable emotions is itself the problem. Running away reinforces beliefs that our emotions are dangerous, making us even more likely to run away from them (and toward a coping mechanism like perfectionism) instead.
But when we’re willing to face our uncomfortable emotions and sit with them, we allow ourselves the opportunity to learn first-hand what emotions are really like—sometimes intense, but always fleeting.
This knowledge gives us the freedom and confidence to accept and ride out our emotions rather than compulsively trying to make them go away.
So, now that I’ve read this article and understand how perfectionism really works, I’ll be over it?
This isn’t intellectual knowledge we’re talking about here, it’s experiential knowledge. The owner of a pet shop can quote facts and statistics all day long about how tarantulas aren’t dangerous, but until you practice holding one in your hand over and over again, you’re still going to be afraid.
Similarly, you can intellectually understand that painful emotions aren’t dangerous or particularly long-lasting on their own. But you won’t really believe that and act accordingly until you experientially learn it for yourself.
The secret to overcoming perfectionism is to practice being tolerant of our emotions. Especially the ones that are strongly associated with perfectionistic behaviors.
How to Practice
Getting over perfectionism requires two basic (but difficult) skills:
1. Emotional Awareness
Before you can start to “work on” your perfectionism, it’s essential to be aware of the emotional cues or triggers for your perfectionistic behaviors. I recommend starting to keeping a small journal or simple notes file on your phone.
Whenever you feel the pull toward perfectionism, take a few minutes to reflect and answer the following questions:
- What happened?
- What emotion(s) did I feel?
- What behaviors did I feel pulled to engage in?
Do this exercise long enough, and it will start to become painfully obvious what your emotional triggers for perfectionism are.
2. Emotional Tolerance
Once you get better at noticing when a perfectionism-triggering emotion is present (or if you get really good, anticipating ahead of time that a certain event or situation may trigger such an emotion), the next step is to practice staying with and feeling the emotion rather than running away from it, “fixing it,” or otherwise trying to distract yourself from it.
The idea is to build up a tolerance to the discomfort of negative emotion. Much like how an athlete through training learns that they can endure more physical discomfort than they realized in order to perform well, it’s important to learn that we can endure emotional discomfort in order to take action based on our values and what’s truly important to us rather than building our life around avoiding pain and discomfort.
As a concrete way to practice this, try The 2-Minute Drill: Once you’ve identified a perfectionism-triggering emotion, pull out your phone, set the timer for 2 minutes, and tell yourself that for at least these two minutes, I’m just going to sit with my emotion and feel it. Then after two minutes, you can decide to go ahead with the perfectionistic behavior anyway or choose to do something else.
After a while, try bumping the time up to 4 minutes, then 7. By the time you get to 10 minutes, you’ll almost certainly have gained enough experience to see that the awfulness of the sitting with the emotion was not what you first imagined.
Finally, building a mindfulness practice is a great way to practice both emotional awareness and emotional tolerance. Here are a few articles to get you started if that’s of interest:
- How to Start a Mindfulness Practice: A Quick Guide for Complete Beginners
- No Seriously, what is Mindfulness?
- Ordinary Mindfulness: Practical Ideas for Mindfulness in Everyday Life
- This book is also really good.
Most of the advice out there on overcoming perfectionism falls flat because it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what causes perfectionism.
Tips to “lower your standards,” “schedule time to be lazy,” or best of all, “just relax” are all based on the faulty assumption that the difficulty with perfectionism is in the outcome, in trying to be perfect.
But the true problem with perfectionism is in how we respond to the feeling that precedes it, it’s about trying to feel perfect.
When we understand this fundamental difference, we can more successfully target our efforts to change by working to become more aware and tolerant of our emotions. And if we can do this—accept our emotions rather than run from them—we can remove the need for perfectionism in the first place.