Perfectionism Defined

This page summarizes the five major and ten minor characteristics of perfectionism I’ve identified to date. After reading it, please continue to the solutions page.

To learn how perfectionism can be an obstacle to social justice click here. – Hillary

The Five Major Characteristics of Perfectionism


1) Defining success narrowly and unrealistically; punishing oneself harshly for perceived failures.

The unhappy perfectionist writer, who also happens to be under-resourced, is having trouble working.Illustration by Barry Deutsch from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific

The unhappy perfectionist writer, who also happens to be under-resourced, is having trouble working.
Illustration by Barry Deutsch from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific

For example, this statement meets the criteria: “If I don’t get an A on this test, despite the fact that I’ve been ill and the teacher taught poorly, I’m stupid.” You’ve got the narrow definition of success (only an A is acceptable), the unreality (doing well despite illness and poor teaching), and the harsh punishment (“stupid”).

Perfectionists usually don’t even recognize barriers to success, so this person would be more likely to unconsciously think, simply: “If I don’t get an A, I’m stupid.”

Note “perceived failures”–often, a perfectionist perceives her outcomes as being worse than they really are. (See the minor characteristic “negativity,” below.)

Other Examples:

*“I should succeed at this job despite the fact that we’re severely under-resourced and my boss is chronically disorganized. If I don’t, I’m a loser.”
*“If I don’t sacrifice everything to my kids, I’m a terrible parent.”
*If I don’t get my hour of exercise in every single day, I’m just a lazy slob.”
*“If my book doesn’t sell well, I must be a crappy writer.”

Please note that “unrealistic” standards are not the same as “high standards.” High standards are fine. Also note that what constitutes “unrealistic” or “high” standards differs from person to person, and can even differ for the same person at different times. Also, what separates unrealistic from high can be how much you’re willing to sacrifice or invest for the goal.

Harsh punishments usually come in the form of an abusive internal dialogue that goes something like this: “What’s wrong with me! This is easy. Anyone can do it. Why am I so lazy and undisciplined? If I don’t get my act together, everyone’s going to see that I’m a loser.”

2) Grandiosity, or the deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you.

Examples:

*“My book is on a timely topic so it should sell well!”
*“Why can’t I stay in as good shape as Jane? Yeah, I know she has fewer commitments than I do, so she gets to spend more time in the gym. But, still: I’m just as committed as she is!”
*“I know things are crazy right now, but I really should sign up for this committee. It’s just an hour a week. I’ll just have to work a little faster on Thursdays, that’s all.”
*“Our product is so great we should be able to knock all the other competitors right out of contention!”

Note the “nugget of rationalization” in each case–grandiose people almost always have one. But, upon closer inspection, the logic never holds up.

Grandiosity is typified by: lack of planning or strategy, overestimation of likelihood of success, underestimation of obstacles to success, and over-reliance on luck. It’s fundamentally delusional, and, in fact, a gambler’s mentality.

3) Shortsightedness, as manifested in a “now or never” or “do or die” attitude. Also, overemphasis on the current moment over the duration of the work session; on the work session over the length of the project; or the current project over one’s entire career.

Shortsightedness causes perfectionists to forget that any mistakes or shortcomings in their work can be corrected later, so they panic at their work’s (inevitable) imperfections. It therefore puts huge pressure on perfectionists to do outstanding work every single moment.

It also robs perfectionists of their history and their future; of perspective and proportion. For perfectionists, life is one all-encompassing, hyper-judgmental now.

4) Overidentification with work. If the work session goes well, a perfectionist feels like king or queen of the world, and if it fails, he or she is down in the dumps.

It’s the overidentification, combined with the narrow definition of success, harsh punishments, grandiosity, and shortsightedness that causes the terror of failure characteristic of perfectionists, and that is the main driver of procrastination.

And the last major characteristic of perfectionism…

5) Overemphasis on product (vs. process), and on external rewards. Perfectionists are obsessed with how good the final result of their efforts will be, and the reward they hope to reap. A reward could be a good grade, promotion, publication in a top journal, review in a top publication, or, more generally, money, fame, love, and/or respect.

Non-perfectionists, by contrast, stay mostly focused on the work itself and reap most of their rewards from the intrinsic pleasures of doing that work. If grades, publication, money, etc., come, they’re happy, but those aren’t the main point.

Focusing on the reward is doubly risky because you’re putting your self-esteem in the hands of others (potential customers, reviewers, lovers, etc.).

The Ten Minor Characteristics of Perfectionism (Some of Which Might Be Major for You!)


1. Labeling
– “Why am I so lazy? “I’m a dope.” “I’m weak.” (Yes, I know I use labeling in some of my writing—calling someone a “perfectionist,” etc. I do that for concision when I write, but avoid doing so in conversation or when teaching.)

2. Hyperbole – “I’m the worst parent ever.” “I’m a total loser.” “This is the worst paper ever written.”

3. Fixations – A perfectionist fixation is any relentlessly repetitive form of self-criticism. “I can’t write dialogue.” “I can’t do math.”

Perfectionists are harsh self-judges, so an accusation need not even be true to be a fixation.

Some fixations begin with traumatic criticism or rejection, especially from a trusted teacher, editor, boss, or other authority figure.

Obsessions with meaningless degrees or credentials, or with meaningless concepts like talent or originality, are also fixations, as do obsessions with arbitrary goals.

4. Dichotomizing, or seeing things in black-and-white terms, with no shades of gray. “I’m a loser.” (Versus a winner.) “My story stinks.” (Does it really, in its entirety? Or are there parts of it that are okay, as is usually the case?)

Perfectionists frequently dichotomize around success and failure. So, a student might look at any grade less than an “A” as a failure. Or, a writer might read a review of his novel that is mainly positive but contains a few criticisms, and see his novel as a failure.

5. Competitiveness / Comparisons. “Melissa’s kids got into honors English, so mine should, too.” “Trollope got up every morning before his full-time job to write 2,500 words, so I should be able to, too.”

Perfectionist comparisons are invariably flawed. The Trollope example, for instance, ignores that he: (a) was highly atypical; and (b) had all the benefits of a wealthy, Victorian gentleman, including household servants.

Perfectionists also compare themselves to idealized versions of their role. Whether it’s the artist who thinks he’s supposed to be effortlessly creative (whatever that means) every day, or the activist who thinks she’s supposed to “sacrifice everything” (ditto) to her cause, or the child of immigrant parents who thinks it’s his duty to be “never disappoint” (ditto) them, or the parent who thinks it’s her job to “sacrifice everything” (ditto!) for her kids, this kind of comparison is also flawed and a source of unhappiness and underproductivity. And finally,

Perfectionists also compare themselves with themselves at a peak level of performance. So, an athlete relentlessly compares his current performance to his peak, twenty years ago; and a writer relentlessly compares her daily output to the single day in her entire career where she was able to write 5,000 words. Both comparisons are irrational. Instead of pining after a peak level of performance, figure out how you were able to achieve it and try to replicate the conditions–and if you can’t (say, because the athlete’s body is now twenty years older), accept that fact and stop comparing.

6. Unconscious Process. Perfectionists often “wing it” or operate on intuition, instead of using an informed strategy, and so they often fail. This is partly due to grandiosity (see above), but is also a natural consequence of their habit of isolating themselves due to shame. Their isolation means they have no mentors or colleagues to guide them.

7. Pathologizing of Normal Work Processes or Events. “I had a bad day writing, so I guess I’m not a real writer.” “My kid was a total brat today, so I guess I’m a lousy parent.” “I have trouble understanding financial statements, so I guess I’m a lousy businessperson.” Everyone has bad days, and areas where they’re not fully competent, but a perfectionist takes these as evidence she’s unfit for the project.

8. Negativity. Perfectionists habitually undervalue themselves, their accomplishments, others’ accomplishments, and also others’ willingness to help. This is a more serious problem than it might seem because not only does it demoralize and demotivate you, it can repel others.

9. Rigidity. Perfectionists persist in trying the same nonworking solutions over and over. “I should be able to get my work done in my crowded, hot apartment with my family going nuts and the TV blaring. I should, I should, I should. And I’m going to stay here until I do it.” (A nonperfectionist would simply pack up her computer and decamp to a cooler, quieter library or coffee shop.)

10. Blind Spots / Misplaced Pride. Even after learning about the true nature and seriousness of perfectionism, many perfectionists:

*Treat the above characteristics like harmless behavioral tics and habits.
*Confuse “high” with “impossible” standards.
*Say things like, “Well, I do sometimes get hard on myself!” and you can hear the pride in their voice even though they they’re pretending that it’s a problem.

Perfectionism is a toxic brew of antiproductive habits, attitudes and ideas. It is NOT the same as having high standards, and there is no such thing as “good perfectionism.”

Where Perfectionism Comes From

We get perfectionism from society, and especially from the media, which uses perfectionism to sell products. We also get it from our parents and teachers, who may be well-meaning but also grew up in a perfectionist society. And it’s almost always catalyzed by traumatic rejections, especially from teachers, publishing professionals, or other authority figures.

Situational perfectionism, a condition where something happens that suddenly increases your perfectionism, is also very common.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Ashamed of Your Perfectionism Problem

1. Because perfectionism is universal. Pretty much everyone suffers from it, in one or another sphere of life. As noted above, it is ubiquitous in our culture, and we’re all swimming in an ocean of it practically from the day we’re born. Few people escape it entirely.

2. Because it tends to afflict the best people: the ones who care the most, hold themselves to the highest standard, seek to do good work, and uphold their responsibilities. These are all wonderful qualities, and perfectionism is often caused by taking them just a bit too far.

3. And because it is solvable. In fact, working to become less perfectionist is one of the most rewarding activities you can engage in.

So, congratulations for committing to work on your perfectionism. I wish you much productivity and joy–which you now have a much better chance of attaining. — Hillary

For more information, check out The 7 Secrets of the Prolific and my workshops.

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