Are you a high achiever who has been told the goals you set for yourself are unrealistic? Do you have a hard time making decisions due to fear of failure? Do you often doubt your actions and performance? Do you beat yourself up when the goals were not met the way you had envisioned? If so, I am sorry to break it to you, but you are a perfectionist.
In many cases, perfectionism will likely take you far. For example, when you are striving to be the best parent you can be, delivering exemplary results at work, or planning a flawless event. Perfectionism can, unfortunately, also bring many unwanted results.
Although people often secretly take pride in their perfectionism (myself included), it can have a negative impact on one's wellbeing. As a primary care physician, I treat many people who suffer from anxiety and depression, partially due to excessive self-criticism and relying on their achievements to assess their self-worth -- two key traits of perfectionists.
Seeing my patients struggle with these traits made me reflect on the effect that my own perfectionism was having on me. While researching the topic, I came across a quote that really challenged the view I held of my constant quest toward perfectionism.
"Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit for the worst in ourselves." -- Julia Cameron
Here is the evidence:
The well-adapted perfectionist has high standards and is goal-oriented. But when taken too far, a perfectionist's need to meet these high standards can lead to depression and anxiety if her results don't meet her expectations, according to a recent study.
When you define your self-worth by how many goals you can achieve, you are inevitably creating a recipe for depression. Especially when the goals you set are unrealistic.
2. Maladaptive response to stress
Our fight or flight response has helped the human race survive stressful situations for centuries, dating back to helping our ancestors avoid attacks from predators. Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress, allowing us to activate this mechanism in case of a life-threatening event. But constant stress in our daily lives can raise our cortisol levels and have detrimental effects on our health, including a weakened immune system, weight gain, high blood sugar, risk of cardiovascular disease, and negative effects on memory, to name a few. A Swiss study demonstrated that perfectionism correlates with a greater cortisol level increase in subjects exposed to a standardized psychological stress task.
What do most of these negative effects of cortisol lead up to? They increase the likelihood of a shorter life span. What good is leading a "perfect" life if striving to do so leads to disease and shorter survival?
The same study that looked at perfectionism and depression found that a perfectionist's dissatisfaction toward unmet goals often gets directed toward other people. These feelings of discontent can morph into anger and even physical aggression.
When you think about your own life and relationships, do you really want to be the person that everyone is tiptoeing around or trying to avoid because you are known for your hot temper? Is reaching that goal worth the strain you'll put on your relationships while you are getting there?
In the same way that a perfectionist can be aggressive to others, he or she is also more likely to inflict self-harm as a result of experiencing these failures, according to the same study. Think self-injury, eating disorders or even suicide. Self-harm is a coping mechanism used to regulate the negative emotions that the perfectionist is experiencing. Self-harm in perfectionists is more prevalent when receiving negative feedback, because it causes more distress to a perfectionist than to someone a little less attached to the perception of his or her result.
If you think that self-harm is only harming yourself, think again. Watching a loved one struggle with self-harm has serious emotional implications, and chances are those you are closest with won't remain unscathed.
5. Poor quality of life
Depression, aggression, self-harm and poor stress-coping skills all add up to an overall poor quality of life. As therapist Dr. Alisa Hoffman puts it, "I see perfectionism leading to high levels of anxiety, low self-esteem, low confidence and an overall low rating in quality of life. People are so caught up in being perfect that they miss the bigger picture with regard to the blessings in their life and instead focus on the near misses. Because, as we all know, perfection is impossible to achieve."
You may think, yes, but this doesn't apply to me, I can control my perfectionism.
Maybe so, to a certain degree, but examine your patterns in life. How do you react if things do not always go according to the exact plan you have created? What if you are not the best at everything? Perhaps there are times the perfectionism is so overwhelming that the negative traits do come out.
When this happens to me, I try to put things into perspective. It helps me to think about the regrets I may have on my deathbed. It is then that I realize there is no competition for the "end of life score" where I am striving for 100 percent. This is not an exam, as we have been conditioned throughout our lives.
Bronnie Ware wrote a well-known book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. In the five regrets, I assure you, no one talks about wishing to have been more perfect. Rather than that, the regrets are about wishing to have had more courage, being happier and more connected.
From my experience with patients, and people in my personal life, I have found that those who are strictly attached to an end result, without much flexibility, are the ones who suffer the most when things don't turn out the way they planned.
We simply cannot be in control of everything. We need to learn to let go, and not waste our energy on negative reinforcement or beating ourselves up. We need to stop using our accomplishments to cling to our self-worth.
I invite you to practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and embrace and love all parts of yourself. Even the so-called imperfect ones.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-DONTCUT for the S.A.F.E. Alternatives hotline.