Why Don’t Perfectionists Come (Easily) Out Of Their Closet?

My parents highly valued academic achievements and striving to be your best; perfectionism was a quality to be pursued. And while humanity’s aspiration to improve is what made us discover, create and grow, there’s quite a difference between aiming and obsessing. It took me many years to learn it.


perfectionism  noun – refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.


Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterised by a person’s compulsive striving for flawlessness and setting high-performance standards, paired with critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ opinions of self. Perfectionists measure their self-worth by accomplishments and productivity and tend to be their own harshest critics when they fail to meet their self-imposed standards.


The bright side of perfectionism is that it can drive people to accomplishments and motivates them to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. The adaptive form of perfectionism is typically considered the positive component of this personality trait. Adaptive perfectionism includes preferences for order and organisation, a persistent striving for excellence, and an orientation to tasks and performance. Low negativity and healthy self-esteem accompany all of these characteristics.


In its pathological form, perfectionism can be damaging and is increasingly seen as a risk factor for suicide. The perfectionists’  high expectations of self and their self-criticism, together with their habit of showing a perfect facade to the world increases their risk of suicide, while decreasing the likelihood they will seek help when they should.


Perfectionism is a risk factor for the obsessive-compulsive disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, eating disorders, social anxiety, social phobia, body dysmorphic disorder, workaholism, self-harm, substance abuse, and clinical depression as well as physical problems like chronic stress, and heart disease.


So perfectionism can be “light” and somehow useful, but when it gets bad, it’s very bad.

Would it benefit those afflicted to recognise it and ask for help? Surely.


Then why don’t perfectionists come out of their closet?


There are a few possible scenarios/cases:

1. They don’t have a closet – or do they?

One might think that the adaptive perfectionists are the happy campers who get the best of the two worlds: they have glorious achievements, but don’t obsess, don’t fret, don’t kill themselves working. However, the problem doesn’t occur when they reach their goals, only when they don’t. That’s when self-criticism rears its ugly head, they start obsessing, and their self-esteem plummets.


2. They don’t recognise it for what it is.

Since parents transmit their perfectionist tendencies to children, this is the face of normality you grew up with, and as such, you don’t find anything unusual about it. Maybe with time, you start noticing differences between you and your peers regarding persistence over goals in general and details in particular, but you learned that this is a valuable quality, so, good for you!

3. They start to see it, but don’t think/deny that perfectionism is a problem.

And theoretically, it’s not, as long as it stays with certain limits. Still, under stress and when things don’t go as they would like to, even the “mild” perfectionists start displaying the typical behaviours and face the same issues. And only when it’s being pointed to them they start recognising it. I have spoken to very lovely people who were functioning normally until stressful circumstances hit. Then they tended to procrastinate, got anxious and noticed their inner voice becoming quite mean to them despite their increased efforts.

4. They see it but can’t admit it’s a problem and don’t ask for help.

Why? Because for the love of all that is holly, they cannot admit or – even worse -, let others see that they have a problem.
When you spend your life perfecting yourself – and often, those around you-, when you continuously hunt and correct the slightest mistake, you can’t afford to be seen as flawed. Because deep down you fear that once others know the “real” you, they won’t like/accept/respect/ love you for who you are. Deep down you carry the feeling of being an impostor, and that’s why you work your whole life to create and maintain this beautiful mask of perfection.


The lesser known truth is that perfectionism is a self-esteem issue, based on emotional convictions about what one must do to be acceptable as a person. It is based on self- criticism and the “all-or-nothing” thinking where an achievement is either perfect or useless.


Still, many people – perfectionists in particular – fail to see the connection between perfectionism and low- self-esteem. Since they’re working harder than anybody, the perfectionists do get that valuable experience that makes them succeed seemingly without effort where others struggle. Perfectionists have their strategies, discipline, and systems in place to help them achieve those fantastic results. But so do all achievers, right?


The difference is that if you strip a perfectionist naked of their systems and order, what’s left is a scared and vulnerable person, desperately trying to hide away and restore all these things that have become part of who they think they are. When you’re always a control freak, it’s not comfortable to be left in a world of complete chaos without the tools that keep you not only afloat but (apparently) in charge of the events.


What’s The Way Out?


If I’ve been speaking about it in a way that made it sound all gloom and doom… well, don’t be afraid, it’s not (not all the time).

The first thing you can do is to start paying attention more to the telltale signs. If you’re not sure, take an assessment, find out if you’re a perfectionist.

Another idea is to ask the people in your life – your close friends, your family and co-workers. You’d be surprised how many things that seem perfectly natural to you had them roll their eyes so hard it hurt.


Once you discovered at what end of the spectrum you are – if you are – there are simple measures you can take to make sure it’s not getting worse. You know, common sense, like don’t pile up a mountain of chores that would be fit for 10 or more people.

Rest, get enough sleep and take some time out. 

Say NO to some people and tasks – the world will not collapse because you decided to take some “Me” time. 

Open up and let others see you – people are attracted to humans, not cold, perfectly running machines (even machines don’t run all the time perfectly).

If you want others to like and trust you, how about you be the first to give yourself that love and appreciation? 

Play, now and then – I know you almost forgot how, but it’s there, screaming to come out again. And last but not least, recognise when changing things is not in your power, and therefore they are not your responsibility.

I know it can be hard to let go of control, releasing the grip on life can be scary. You feel lost, you feel exposed.

The bad news is you never had real control, it just looked like you did. The good news is, you don’t have to. When you learn to trust the flow and surrender to the infinite intelligence that runs this universe, not only will your life become easier, but you will find available a far wider range of solutions than you could think of.


Because, ultimately, the real power resides in the flexibility to adapt and find new answers, not in the rigid schemes or strategies we employ.


Is Fear Of Being Judged Running Your Life?

Would you like to start doing what YOU want instead of what others choose for you?

Perfectionists R US

If you’re a perfectionist and would like to join a community of  like minded people, you can join my Facebook group.

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