According to Dr. Gordon Flett of York University who has specialized in studying perfectionism and anxiety, “Perfectionism is the need to be, or to appear to be, perfect.” He has identified three types:
- self-oriented: those who expect perfection of themselves
- other-oriented: those who demand perfection from others
- socially-prescribed: those who think others expect perfection of themselves
People who are perfectionistic have unrealistically high expectations for performance, but take little joy in their accomplishments because their results are never quite good enough. This means that sometimes they avoid taking on a certain challenge because they fear that they can’t do it perfectly. Unlike high achievers who enjoy the “flow” of marshaling their strongest skills, stretching towards a challenge, and doing the best they can with the time and energy they have, perfectionists focus only on the result and find the hard work and long hours exhausting and the result imperfect.
Perfectionists live with an “internal bully” who is horrified by mistakes and is constantly threatening failure. This harsh internal voice often causes the perfectionist high anxiety, frequent frustration, guilt, and even panic. The person is often seen as a high achiever by others, but also as a person who is uncomfortable to be around because they seem so perfect.
If the perfectionist demands perfection from others, he or she is very difficult to work for or to have as a parent or spouse.
Dr. Martin M. Antony is Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Lab at Ryerson University and Immediate Past-President of the Canadian Psychological Association. Dr. Antony is also currently a professor and Graduate Program Director at Ryerson University. He has recently co-authored a book called When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. In 2010, he gave a very interesting TEDx talk with the same title.
High achievers set high standards for themselves and work energetically to achieve them, but their whole sense of self-worth is not dragged down if they don’t meet those standards perfectly.
If you suspect that you may be a perfectionist, ask yourself the following questions designed by Dr. Gordon Flett:
TEN TOP SIGNS YOUR A PERFECTIONIST
- you can’t stop thinking about a mistake you made
- you are intensely competitive and can’t stand doing worse than others
- you either want to do something “just right” or not at all
- you demand perfection from other people
- you won’t ask for help if asking can be perceived as a flaw or weakness
- you will persist at a task long after other people have quit
- you are a fault-finder who must correct other people when they are wrong
- you are highly aware of other people’s demands and expectations
- you are very self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people
- you noticed the error in the title of this list
If you do think you may be a perfectionist, ask yourself what it may be costing you. People who are perfectionistic often have high anxiety, procrastinate frequently, don’t delegate as they should, spend more time planning than doing, avoid something if they fear they cannot do it perfectly, and may have difficulties in relating to peers, direct reports, and spouses.
If the price is too high, you can work towards changing the thoughts and behaviours which cost you too much time and energy. Start by watching Dr. Antony Martin’s TEDx talk, then read his book When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. Also, you will probably find Dr. David Burns, MD, book Feeling Good – very helpful.