What Causes Perfectionism? 10 Ways To Recognize Pefectionism Within Yourself
In athletics, we often find ourselves glorifying this idea of perfectionism.
Describing someone as a perfectionist almost signifies a superhuman drive for excellence with an extreme work ethic to match. But what we fail to realize is true perfectionism is not the key to success, as we so often believe.
Real perfectionism, the type that leaves you no option other than to continually tear yourself down, pinpointing all your mistakes in a misguided attempt to reach your potential, is hellish to deal with.
In fact, I would say there is little correlation between perfectionism and work ethic. One of the falsely identified positive traits that we see attributed to perfectionism is working hard. Though, these two are not one in the same.
Truth be told, suffer perfectionism long enough and I guarantee that the work ethic you used to give thanks to perfectionism for will fade away. There will come a time when you grow tired of the constant abuse you deliver yourself, resulting in a complete loss of motivation.
The True Costs Of Perfectionism
As someone who has lived through perfectionism, and continues to fight off its terrible grasp, I can attest to the negative effects it has on our lives.
Now, I have fallen into the trap described above. I would rationalize the negative self-talk and terrible feelings perfectionism would result in, by convincing myself it was a necessary evil in the development of my work ethic.
But at what point does a necessary evil become unnecessary?
Once I realized the negatives far outweighed the positives, my perspective on perfectionism shifted. As an athlete, self-belief, confidence, focus, motivation, and so many other mental characteristics are vital to long-term success.
Perfectionism preys on each of these and more. Allow your mind to become fixated on the idea of perfection, and watch as the true costs of perfectionism unfold. Some of the main ways perfectionism negatively impacts your life and performances include:
- Negative Self-Talk. At the core of perfectionism there’s a voice. A voice in your head always reminding you of the ways you fell short of perfection. This dialogue that takes place is referred to as negative self-talk. Having a direct influence on the way that you feel, negative self-talk will significantly lower the quality of your life and the level at which you perform.
- Chronic Anxiety. If you are focused on being perfect, it’s only natural to grow worried about the idea of not attaining such perfection. Your mind is consumed with outcome-oriented thinking, since that is the best way to judge whether or not you were perfect, and so you live in a natural state of anxiety.
- Low Self-Confidence. Confidence thrives on seeing ourselves succeed. If we repeatedly witness success, either in our minds or reality, confidence will soar. However, with perfectionism, such success is never seen clearly. Any achievement will be overshadowed by the inevitable failure your mind will identify. The more you focus on your mistakes, the lower your self-confidence will nose dive.
- Lack of Motivation. The work ethic derived from perfectionism will be quite good in the beginning. This drive for perfection will result in intense effort given to training your skills. However, all that will change with time. As you continue to locate mistakes and failures, soon the work you’re putting forth will not seem so worthwhile. Why give all this effort to something that only results in negative self-talk contributing to high levels of anxiety and low self-confidence?
These are just a few of the many ways perfectionism negatively impacts our lives and performances. So let me ask you, do you still think perfectionism is a helpful trait?
"Now, I have fallen into the trap described above. I would rationalize the negative self-talk and terrible feelings perfectionism would result in, by convincing myself it was a necessary evil in the development of my work ethic."
How To Recognize Perfectionism In Yourself
It’s been very hard for me to admit to my perfectionist tendencies, as it may be for you. So often we try to hold onto the simple fact that we just have ambition and a drive to be the best.
What’s important to understand is this is not an either or scenario. No one said in order to have ambition and a strong drive to succeed we must then develop perfectionism. Perfectionism really has nothing to do with ambition.
It’s all about the way we judge ourselves and where our attention is placed on the path towards our goals. Perfectionism is actually a deterrent to being our best, not an advantage.
So, it’s crucial we acknowledge the fact we are perfectionists, because only then will we be in a position to alter this terribly negative way of thinking.
Now, I’m no stranger to being blind to our own faults. Identifying perfectionism and other negative mindsets within ourselves is not always an easy task.
Which is why it’s helpful to have some behavioral traits and thought processes to look out for that will signify perfectionism. When examining whether or not you have perfectionism, look for any of these ten signs, as they may be the causes of perfectionism in your life.
"What’s important to understand is this is not an either or scenario. No one said in order to have ambition and a strong drive to succeed we must then develop perfectionism. Perfectionism really has nothing to do with ambition."
1. You Are Extremely Hard On Yourself
Self-examination is a key component to self-improvement. I believe in taking frequent inventory of every aspect of our lives, especially those areas we are seeking to grow in the most. Though, this can sometimes be an evil trap for a perfectionist.
If you tend to be overly critical and hard on yourself, it may be a sign you have developed perfectionism. You see, as a perfectionist, it’s not that you’re just hard on yourself, but you completely beat yourself up.
Normally, when partaking in a healthy practice of self-evaluation, we can locate both good and positive aspects of ourselves and our performance. However, this is not the case as a perfectionist.
Locating areas of positivity will be far and few between. When you do find some, you will quickly shift your focus, looking for some more areas you can improve upon.
You are never satisfied with the success you achieve, and always beat yourself up over what you could have done better. Scoring two goals is not good enough, you should have gotten three. An A is falling short, why couldn’t you have gotten an A+?
2. You Get Depressed When You Fall Short Of Perfection
After you beat yourself up, how do you feel?
I would guess pretty terribly, almost borderline depressed.
Perfectionism feeds off thinking of ourselves as just not good enough. This is one of the key differences between someone with a healthy drive to succeed and better themselves and someone who has become a perfectionist.
An individual viewing their performances in a more positive way sees falling short of perfection as par for the course, since they know perfection is not attainable. The situation is examined objectively, and they ask themselves, “What can I learn from this to help myself improve?”
However, with perfectionism, a mini depression will likely accompany falling short of perfection. This is something I can attest to, as it happened to me on quite a few occasions.
After a game in which I felt like I failed, my mood would take a turn for the worse. For the next few days, I would feel as if I was completely depressed. All because I viewed myself as less than perfect.
So be careful, if after a performance you find yourself becoming depressed at the sight of your perceived imperfection.
3. You Set Unattainably High Standards For Yourself
There is nothing wrong with holding yourself to high standards. In fact, I find this to be an admirable quality we should all adopt. However, as a perfectionist, this is taken to a whole other level.
What happens is, you set unattainable standards that are impossible for you to actually achieve. In reality, what you’re doing is setting yourself up for failure.
It’s not that you’re purposefully doing this, so it’s easy to miss as a cause and sign of your perfectionist tendencies. In our minds, we simply see this as holding ourselves to high standards. Ones that will help us become the best versions of ourselves.
Where we really get into trouble is after the target is not hit. When we fail to reach these unattainable standards, we begin in on the degrading self-talk, ridiculing ourselves as to how terrible we are for not living up to our own expectations.
It’s one thing if you set a target for yourself, see it as an ideal to strive for, but do not become obsessed with literally reaching that very mark. This proves to be a healthy way to push ourselves to keep progressing.
Though taken to the extreme, these high standards are set to be unattainable, providing ourselves with no option but to be failures in our own eyes.
4. Plagued By Guilt
What do you get when you take an intense desire to be perfect and pair it with constant failures? You find yourself a person who lives in the constant agony of guilt.
Feeling guilty is one of the main symptoms I expereince when perfectionism is allowed to thrive in my mind.
Let’s use a work day for example. I have an idea of how I want the day to go. My planner has been laid out, outlining every activity I wish to accomplish that day. Fast forward to the end of the work day and everything on my schedule has been checked off as complete.
But guess what happens? Instead of focusing on the success and productivity I had during the day, my mind immediately thinks of all the other things I could have done. Not feeling satisfied, and believing I could have done more, invites guilt into my mind.
I now begin to feel guilty of what I didn’t do, rather than proud of what I did accomplish.
Over time, guilt wears on you. Having to deal with the constant feeling that you didn’t do enough is tiring and leads to burnout. When in the grasp of perfectionism, guilt will become a common companion.
"Over time, guilt wears on you. Having to deal with the constant feeling that you didn’t do enough is tiring and leads to burnout. When in the grasp of perfectionism, guilt will become a common companion."
5. Success Is Never Enough
A bittersweet truth about life is that there will always be more for you to accomplish. The hands of time keep moving, and with it, the doors of opportunity are continually open. Improvement is neverending, and therefore, success is always the prequel of what else you can accomplish.
There are two ways we can view this. One way is to see it as a fun, healthy, and challenging opportunity for us to continually improve and better ourselves (this is the viewpoint we should all hope to take.)
The other way is to view this in a terribly negative light (this is the viewpoint we take with perfectionism).
In this instance, success is never enough. We understand there is always something more to be achieved, so we never allow ourselves to feel successful, no matter how large or small the achievement may be.
6. You Are Prone To Procrastination
Procrastinating is common behavior among those of us with perfectionism.
Up to this point, most of the ways to recognize perfectionism have been centered around our mental responses after an event has unfolded. But what about before an event? Can we exhibit perfectionism before something happens?
The answer is yes! Perfectionism very often paralyzes us from action. It keeps us from moving forward because we are stuck in our minds, hell bent on being perfect before we can get started.
We can experience this inside and outside of sports. For instance, we can find ourselves stuck in a training cycle, thinking we must keep practicing until we perfect our craft before we can play a game.
In work, we may find ourselves unable to begin a project or move forward with a new proposal out of the belief that it is not quite perfect yet.
Living our lives as perfectionists opens the door for procrastination, since we are unable to move forward until we are perfect.
7. You Are Constantly Looking For Mistakes
Constantly finding yourself examining your performances with the intent of locating what you did wrong is a tell tale sign of perfectionism.
To me, this is one of the strangest aspects of perfectionism. As a perfectionist, wouldn’t it seem rational to look for the things we did well, hoping we may have attained the perfection we so desperately crave?
I mean, if our goal is to be perfect, we need to be able to see what we did right in order to identify perfection. However, the sad truth about being a perfectionist is that we cannot imagine an instance where we attain perfection.
As odd and contradictory as this may be, our minds are fixated on the idea of becoming perfect, and therefore, we feel we must locate what we did wrong in order to improve.
What results is a mindset fixed in the practice of constantly looking for mistakes. Luckily, if we look long and hard enough, mistakes will always be found.
8. You Never Feel Perfect
Resulting from the continual identification of areas we messed up and little mistakes we made, perfection is never a feeling you will get to experience as a perfectionist. Regardless of how contradictory this may seem, perfectionists never feel perfect.
Perfectionism is defined by the need to feel perfect, not the act of feeling perfect.
We have this desire within us to strive for perfection, but that desire is never fulfilled. We will always find something else that can be achieved, some other mistake that was made, and another area we can improve upon.
Like clockwork, we work hard and fall short. This vicious cycle makes it clear as to just how perfectionism derails confidence and leaves us ultimately feeling burnt out and unmotivated.
9. You Cannot Allow Yourself To Celebrate Success
In life and sports, we must celebrate our successes. These victories do not need to be huge, monumental occasions either.
Sticking to your goals for the day is a success. Waking up early to go train is a success. Bouncing back after you make a mistake during a game is a success.
There are numerous forms of success, easy to locate if we are looking for them. Identifying these on a frequent basis builds confidence and motivation, because you are repeatedly feeling the rewards of your hard work and dedication.
However, just as success is easy to locate if you are looking for it, it’s terribly hard to find when your mind is consumed with what you did wrong. We know the mind of a perfectionist is fixated on mistakes.
Perfectionists have a difficult time identifying success, and even when they do, celebrating it is even harder. You may notice you did something well, but giving it enough attention to feel pride for the success takes energy away from the mistakes you know you must locate.
10. You Avoid Taking On New Challenges
If we want to truly push ourselves, seeing what height we can attain and actually finding out where our limits lie, taking on new challenges is a requirement.
You need to set yourself challenging goals, ones that force you outside your comfort zone and test the limits of both your body and mind.
But when doing so, you have to understand that failure is the likely outcome, at least at first. Initially, the chances of you perfectly succeeding at your new challenge are slim. That’s why you must alter your definition of success.
When taking on a new challenge, having the courage to start stepping outside your comfort zone is what you need to define as success. The process of beginning is what you need to feel pride for. Anything else is simply icing on the cake.
As a perfectionist, this is not an easy mindset to adopt. Even though you are just starting out and you showed you had the courage to simply push forward, you will demand perfection. Time and time again, you will fall short of perfection and belittle yourself.
This can lead to the fear of failure, making starting a new challenge not an option for you. All pushing your limits does is open you up to failure, resulting in you once again feeling imperfect.
"If we want to truly push ourselves, seeing what height we can attain and actually finding out where our limits lie, taking on new challenges is a requirement. You need to set yourself challenging goals, ones that force you outside your comfort zone and test the limits of both your body and mind."
Perfectionism is not a term to glorify or be proud of stating that you possess.
All being a perfectionist does is simply place you one step further away from actually achieving your goals. If you truly want to succeed and attain the targets you’ve set for yourself, striving for perfection has to be eliminated from your mind.
Mistakes happen and failures are what teach us how to improve ourselves. Yet, they must be viewed from an objective standpoint, not tying our self-worth and emotional state up in each little mistake.
Perfectionism is only going to hurt you, which is why understanding what causes it and how to recognize it within yourself is vital.
If any of the ten reasons listed above sound like you, it’s time to get to work!
Lear how you can begin building your mindset to overcome perfectionism.
If perfectionism is keeping you from performing optimally, and you feel as if it’s a true hindrance to your level of play, learn how mental performance coaching can help you build a strong mindset to eradicate perfectionism from your mind.
I hope you enjoyed this article and if you did, please feel free to share it with your friends.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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