• Nicole Ambrose, LCSW

The Dark Side of Perfectionism


Man Frustrated about his self oriented perfectionism

What could possibly be troublesome about demanding perfection? Isn’t that a good thing? If we’re not working hard to be the best then what’s the point of working at all?


I hear questions like these a lot from the over-achiever, goal-oriented folks I see and I have to say it’s tough to hold a position on the topic. It’s one that has two sides and both have valid points that deserve to be explored.


What is Perfectionism?


The short definition is “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” Not super descriptive and I don’t love that we’re defining a word with the same word, but let’s unpack this a little further. Essentially as a perfectionist, you will not accept anything that does not meet your particular standards of what is flawless.


There are three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed.


Self-oriented perfectionism is when you impose on yourself a specific set of standards (often unrealistic) to define perfection.


Other-oriented perfectionism means you are imposing your standards and expectations for perfection on other people.


And socially prescribed perfectionism is when you are perceiving or believing that others expect perfection from you.


Here’s the problem...to know whether or not you or someone else is meeting the standard you have set or fulfilling expectations there must be ongoing critique and evaluation.


For an adaptive perfectionist - someone that is flexible in their expectations - this isn’t a huge issue. It may help them to set clear goals and solve problems more effectively. But for someone that struggles with the fear of failure and all-or-nothing thinking, perfectionism can become incredibly unhealthy and detrimental.


What Causes Perfectionism?


There are many factors that could contribute to the development of perfectionism as a personality trait, but I’ve found that often it stems from influence and experience during childhood.


Sometimes a children will adopt perfectionism because their caregivers are perfectionists and this is what they have learned is “normal.” Sometimes a child will develop perfectionism as a defense mechanism because they are living in a critical environment under constant scrutiny to meet the seemingly impossible expectations of the people around them. Growing up with an ongoing analysis of whether you’re good or bad, right or wrong, can lead you to develop insecurity in yourself, fear of disapproval, and fear of failure.


The Ugly Truth Underlying Perfectionism


Having unrealistic or unattainable standards and expectations for yourself can fuel negative beliefs that have an impact on your self-esteem and trigger issues with anxiety, panic, depression, OCD, and PTSD.


Perfectionism often leads to an overactive inner critic - that voice in your head that says “you’ll never be good enough, smart enough, strong enough…you do everything wrong...no one likes you...you don’t deserve to be happy or loved.” It’s very hard to live a healthy life when your mind is filled with thoughts like these. Your inner critic will hold you back. It will cloud the lens that you use to view yourself and the world around you.


Perfectionism can create a dysfunctional pattern of self-sabotage that’s easy to get stuck in. For example, you set a positive goal for yourself, but you demand perfection to achieve it. And because of that maybe you become overwhelmed and procrastinate to avoid that stress.


Then when you are not able to accomplish the goal as planned “perfectly,” you knock yourself down with negative thoughts about your worth and abilities. Over time it’s harder and harder to get out of this cycle, but it’s imperative that you do if you are to get on a path towards true fulfillment and self-love.


Let Me Help You!

Some of the best work in therapy is breaking down old patterns of thinking and behavior to figure out where the heck it comes up and why we keep doing it if it’s not benefiting us. Our minds are incredibly complex and sometimes the software needs an update.


For solid change to happen, we have to be willing to acknowledge the ways we may be perpetuating our own struggles. I’d love the chance to support you in the process to learn more adaptive perspectives and strategies to live by. If you’re ready to overcome life challenges and invest in your success, let’s chat! Call me at 954.391.5305 for your complimentary consultation. For more information about my approach, read my bio.



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