True perfectionism can be emotionally crippling and physically dangerous. No matter how coyly the word “perfectionism” gets tossed around in a job interview, nothing about perfectionism is healthy either physically or emotionally.
Perfectionism generally begins to develop in childhood, and it can often be traced to parents who were overly demanding. Parental pressure for success is perceived by children to be constant criticism for mistakes. Children thus internalize the idea that mistakes are not to be tolerated. Only perfection is acceptable. This need for perfection rapidly forms a feedback loop in the budding perfectionist. The perfectionist becomes anxious over the idea of not succeeding which in their mind means achieving perfection in school, at work or in sports. The perfectionist goes looking for a way to cope with their anxiety. This coping strategy usually manifests as more time spent on homework, longer practice sessions or consistently working overtime. When the perfectionist employs their strategy, their anxiety decreases. They experience a pleasant decrease in tension and release of stress. This pleasant feeling reinforces the perfectionist’s behavior. Working harder, longer or more often makes them feel better, so they continue to do it.
These coping strategies are not as harmless as they appear. Most people watching the perfectionist see only a dedicated student, employee or athlete. After all, what’s the harm in a little extra practice or spending a few extra minutes on homework to make sure it’s done right? The harm can come when the coping behavior does not culminate in the perfectionist’s desired result, and the coping mechanism begins to become all consuming. Perfectionistic students can develop sleep and eating disorders as they abandon their health in order to devote more time to homework. The pressure that comes with perfectionism can also lead to serious anxiety, depression and, in extreme cases, suicide.
Perfectionistic coping mechanisms are sometimes unhealthy in and of themselves. Adult perfectionists may start drinking heavily to cope with the stress of their unrelenting crusade for perfection, and young adults who are perfectionists sometimes turn to drugs to escape the all encompassing pressure for success.
This desperate need to live up to impossible standards also strips joy from a perfectionist’s life. A perfectionist cannot simply enjoy sports or dance practice because they are forever comparing themselves to those around them and looking to see who is the best. Hobbies and relaxing activities become competitions. Some perfectionists will spend long hours memorizing all the information available on a TV show’s cast or reading every comic book that’s associated with the latest superhero movie. While other fans may do this out of interest, perfectionists may do this in order to make sure they know everything they need to know about the show or film. This is because perfectionists cannot bear the idea that they might meet someone who is a “bigger fan” than they are.
In an ironic and painful twist, perfectionists are actually less likely to succeed in life. This is because perfectionism often becomes paralyzing. A perfectionist sees mistakes as a personal failing and a reflection of some deep personal flaws. As a result, creativity and innovation suffer because the perfectionist is terrified of making mistakes. They begin to develop rigid, inflexible behavior which makes it more difficult for them to adjust to changing circumstances in their jobs or schooling.
Perfectionism is also transmitted to a person’s children. A perfectionist is unlikely to want to admit their mistakes or failures to their children which leads to a young child believing that a person really can be perfect. The perfectionist also tends to hold their child to extremely high standards because having their child make a mistake reflects on the perfectionist. The child then associates mistakes with a personal failing, and a new perfectionist is born.
Perfectionists can also experience problems in the other relationships in their life. Some perfectionists struggle with interpersonal relationships because they expect perfection from others. They feel like those around them are always disappointing them and can lead perfectionists to become irritable or controlling around their partner. On the flip side, perfectionists are often insecure. They feel that the mistakes they make in life are personal failings. Since mistakes are inevitable, many perfectionists forever feel like they are a failure. This can lead them to pushing away partners who are “too good for them" or leave a significant other too tired to deal with the perfectionist’s constant emotional storm.
In addition to taking their perfectionistic tendencies out on their partners, perfectionists sometimes struggle to connect with other people because they lack the emotional energy. Most perfectionists put a lot of work into looking like they have it together, but that is merely a mask that hides deep insecurities and nearly crippling anxiety. Maintaining a calm veneer over that sort of emotional storm leaves perfectionists too emotionally drained to have emotional energy to spare for other people. Perfectionists also may not reach out because they want a picture perfect relationship where they can be open with their partner, but the perfectionist is unwilling to lay aside their mask. This leaves them feeling like an imposter in their own life.
Despite the way perfectionism is often treated like something that is only a flaw in name, perfectionism has real dangers. Perfectionism can destroy a person’s life with crippling anxiety, unstable relationships and depression. In some ways the saddest thing about perfectionism is that it is a perfectionist’s obsessive push for success that actually keeps them from achieving the excellence they so crave.