What is clinical perfectionism and what does it look like in real life
Most of us want to do well. We are designed to want to pursue, achieve and acquire things, it’s part of what makes us human.Whilst we differ in what we want to achieve and what we consider successful, there is no denying that for some of us, the drive to achieve is stronger than others.
All around us we see examples of people who pursue excellence and who’s ambition is to make it to the top. Goal orientated people who dedicate themselves to being amazing at what they do. Events like the olympics, for example, are designed to motivate, reward and showcase the dedication, hard work and skill that is required to be ‘the best’. Most of us watch it in awe of what people's hard work, skill and dedication can achieve.
To succeed at a high level, we have to have high expectations, high goals and be focussed on improvement. Many high achievers have a perfectionistic streak or tendencies, they have high standards, they have a strong attention to detail and work hard to achieve their goals. It can be useful for some people, when kept in check.
But that doesn’t mean everyone who has high standards and strives to meet them has problems with perfectionism.
So what is perfectionism if it isn’t trying to be the best you can be?
Problematic, unhelpful or ‘clinical’ perfectionism differs from people with a perfectionistic streak or tendency. People who experience clinical perfectionism have a need to strive and achieve. It is driven not by motivation to learn/develop/reach a goal and more by the fear of failure.
Shafran, Egan & Wade (2018) propose 4 main areas that are prominent in clinical perfectionism.
1. Very demanding standards
This can be a little difficult to define in an objective way. We can’t simply label something at demanding and something else not because it is all in context, it is individual to the person and the circumstances. One person’s gold medal level is another’s qualifying round. For example, I am not a runner and so despite being reasonably fit it would be a very demanding and harsh standard to expect myself to be running a marathon by the end of the week. My husband on the other hand has been distance running for years and can generally go out and run a marathon distance on a typical weekend run. So how do we define it? The most helpful way is to consider how difficult it is to attain or how realistic it is for the person. This isn’t a call to aim low though, setting goals and aiming high are good things. How we treat ourselves during the pursuit of these goals though is key.
2. A self-critical stance.
If we set high or demanding goals, an element that determines whether perfectionism is at play is how we coach ourselves to meet them. Typically perfectionists are highly self-critical. Alongside demanding standards they will be quick to draw attention to the negative aspects, any mistakes or things that they didn’t do rather than what they have achieved. A tendency to try and motivate themselves with harsh, critical words rather than encouraging themselves to keep going.
3. The relentless pursuit of those standards even when it is causing problems.
Most of us have set ourselves a goal, draw up a plan of how we might get there and set about achieving what we want. It’s good, it’s healthy - the sticking point comes when our permit of our goals and standards start to hurt us in some way. In our society there is a rhetoric that we should ‘never give up’ and perfectionists tend to take this to heart. Even when the pursuit of these standards starts to cause problems in various areas of life. Eliza Miron is a woman who runs everyday for at least a mile and when I read about her she had managed it for 19yrs straight, no matter what. This takes discipline which many of us admire and there is no doubt that routine and perseverance can bring many benefits but I would argue that this isn’t discipline, it’s not being able to stop. No matter what was going on, no matter what the cost or what her body was saying to her, she ran. She ran merely 5 hours after having a baby (which is not recommended by any health professional) and through injuries such as sprained ankles. No excuses is her motto and it sounds like she really means it. This is obviously quite extreme but more common ways problems show up when we struggle to stop are
narrowing of life enjoyment or focus over sustained period of time (e.g. focussing too much on one area e.g. work or exercise to the detriment of others e.g. health, social life, hobbies),
difficulty with relationships,
avoidance of activities etc.
Perfectionism is ‘handholding best friends’ with procrastination, anxiety, imposter syndrome and more. Often when people seek help for anxiety, depression or self-esteem issues we find perfectionism lurking underneath.
3. Basing your self-worth on your ability to meet standards.
We all evaluate how we are doing, that is natural, but people who struggle with perfectionism tend to base their self-worth on whether or not they are meeting the standards they’ve set (which we’ve already established are demanding). This can often mean a person’s self-worth gets narrowed down into how well they view themselves as performing in a few key areas of life. I have met many people who view themselves as a failure if their weight isn’t kept at a very low point, despite what else might be great about their life. The concept of who they are gets lost amongst what they can do.
Perfectionism can be present in any area of life from work, parenting, relationships, appearance, weight, social performance, sports and exercise, creative interests, food, home, education/study, you name it. Some people are only perfectionists in one area e.g work but it is very common for it to seep into many or all areas of a persons life.
Examples of how perfectionism can look in real life
Sarah is a perfectionist around her appearance. She won’t go out without her make-up If she is going out she will spend as long as it takes (sometimes hours) to make sure she has clean styled hair, make-up on, and the ‘right’ kind of outfit. This can mean she is late or she she has to prepare in advance so that everything is chosen and ready to go. She will spend large amounts of time shopping to make sure her wardrobe is ‘on trend’ and that her outfits are co-ordinated and accessorised well. This can cause her real anxiety when she is getting ready for a night out or an occasion as she feels her outfit has to be ‘just right’. When out for the evening she can get fixated on a single item that doesn’t feel like it looks quite right (hair, shoes, accessories). At a friends party she spent a long time comparing herself to the other women there to check that she had got her look right and that meant she wasn’t really engaging with her friends, partner or enjoying herself. Sometimes she will spend far more than she can afford on an outfit for a big occasion to ensure she looks the part. She will turn down invitations if it is too last minute as she doesn’t have the time to get ready and then she feels she has missed out and that her social life or friendships are not as good as they should be.
Rachel is a perfectionist around her work. She feels a lot of pressure to make sure her work is to a very high standard. She has a list of things she needs/wants to get done and she knows these will be positive for her work but she struggles to do them. She avoids doing certain pieces of work because they feel so daunting to get them to the standard she wants. She procrastinates a lot and puts things off until the last minute, followed by intense bursts of work to get them done. If she receives good feedback she feels relief but it is very short lived before she starts to think about needing to work harder and do better. When her work doesn’t meet her standards she is able to say to herself “I didn’t leave enough time” and use that to explain why they weren’t ‘up to scratch’. This often means she feels like a failure. She has a keen eye on how she is doing compared to her colleges and always feels that she needs to do do better, work longer, produce things that are one-step ahead from what is expected in order to be succeeding at her job. Rachel’s work dominates her life and whilst she has friends and a partner, she is often too stressed or tired from work to feel that she has enough left to offer them.
These are of course just examples. Perfectionism comes in many disguises and often people don’t realise on the surface that perfectionism is running the show.
9 signs that you might be struggling with perfectionism
You put things off or avoid opportunities because you fear you won’t be able to do it perfectly.
You constantly raise the bar on yourself…if you meet the goal, you then set a new harder one.
You struggle to own or recognise your success
You have a stronger focus on what you haven’t achieved rather than what you have.
You leave things until the last minute (like writing an essay or a project at work) so that you have an excuse if it isn’t as good as you think it should be or it doesn’t go well.
You repeatedly compare your performance (this could be close monitoring of your weight/shape or constant seeking of feedback from your boss or checking your level of work against your colleagues)
You avoid new activities or trying new things - it is difficult not being good at things immediately.
Excessive preparing/planning for things
Excessive checking (of your work, your weight, your performance your appearance etc) which takes a lot of time and energy
You are experiencing regular or ongoing adverse effects such as anxiety, physical health issues, stress, relationship problems etc.
This list isn’t exhaustive but it does give a flavour of how perfectionism may be showing up in your life. If you recognise any of these signs or think you may struggle with perfectionism it might be time to start thinking about how things could be different.
Letting go of perfectionism isn’t about achieving less, it is about disentangling your worth from your achievements.
To read more about problems associated with perfectionism, take a look at this biog on procrastination