Hi, my name’s Cara and I’m a perfectionist.

Yes, it’s true, I’m a bit of a perfectionist myself, so perfectionism is a subject I feel pretty well versed in, both professionally and personally. I easily empathise with the students that come into my office who will rewrite, spend way too many hours on, and anguish over their work to ensure it is perfect (in primary school, I would stick my pages together to ‘cover up’ my less than perfect work…perfectionist much?!).

It really isn’t surprising that this this is where I tend to hear about emerging perfectionism the most (in school work and school-aged children). After all, the pressure of performance is clashing and mixing with evolving study skills, increasing self-awareness, peer comparison,  the development of one’s own beliefs and standards, and perhaps even pressure from others to do well. But what is conscientious, and what is perfectionism?

“Do you think my child is a perfectionist?”

So many parents have come into my room asking me just this question. Usually mum, dad, or a teacher has begun to notice that school work is taking a LOT longer than it should (and learning difficulties have been ruled out as the cause), or that their student appears to be moving past what we might think of as conscientious behaviour, and has started to become almost obsessive.

What are the signs?

There are a few ‘tell tale’ signs that someone is, or is becoming a bit of a perfectionist, and these vary with age and with temperament…

In young children it can look like tantrums or ‘excessive’ emotion when they can’t get their work ‘just so’,

In adolescents it can be taking hours to complete assignments that should be quicker, hesitation or even refusal to hand up work, and often an inability to complete work,

And in adults, it can be hesitation to start or complete tasks, getting ‘stuck’ in the middle of them, or sacrificing time better spent elsewhere on either the task itself, or on ‘thinking about’ the task.  

And this is by no means an exhaustive list, and there is some obvious cross-over and sharing of ‘signs’ between age groups (toddlers are not the only ones who have tantrums after all!). Perfectionism can be hiding behind so many behaviours and has many masks.

Why does it have to be perfect?

We often think of perfectionism as a need to attain or achieve something, namely perfection, but I find it useful to think of perfectionism as a means of avoiding something. Perfectionism often allows us to feel as though we are avoiding (to name a few common ones)….

  • Fear of not being good enough,
  • Fear of rejection,
  • Fear of  losing of control,
  • Fear of being thought of or seen in an unwanted way (such as a teacher thinking a student is ‘stupid’)
So how does perfectionism work?

Perfectionism allows us to feel as though we are avoiding an unwanted feeling or thought.

If I’m worried my teacher will think I’m stupid if I hand up inferior work, I’ll make it perfect – no stupidity in perfect work, right?

If I’m afraid of being kicked out of a sports team for not being good enough, I’ll make my performance flawless – surely no-one would kick out the star player.

If I feel as though something in my world is out of control? Well, I’ll make my space perfect and beat down those feelings of anxiety and helplessness – let me bask in the feelings of control this creates.

Almost sounds like it could be a good solution right? Sure, if this idea of perfection is realistic, attainable and maintainable, but generally speaking, it’s not. There are however, some ‘pro’s’ and some ‘con’s’ to striving for it.

The Pro’s
  • Perfectionists are often high-achievers – perfectionism can be channelled to help power success.
  • Perfectionists are often highly valued employees – if perfectionistic traits create stellar work and not a chronic procrastinator.
  • Perfectionists often value this about themselves, when it’s helpful, not only because of the above, but because they get a sense of pride and satisfaction from their achievement.
The Con’s
  • All the time lost. Taking too long on a task or going over and over it and sacrificing time that could be given to other things.
  • Never finishing things, or perhaps having difficulty even starting things – especially in an education or work setting, where this can be a big problem.
  • The frustration!! Perfection is an elusive, perhaps even unattainable thing, so continually striving for it and not quite getting there doesn’t feel good at all!
  • You’ve lost the enjoyment – what may have started out as a satisfying, enjoyable journey for achievement has now become stressful, perhaps even burdensome.
Channel it, don’t be ruled by it.

When those of us that attract the ‘perfectionist’ label find a way to use and channel our perfectionistic traits, we can be a force to be reckoned with. Somewhere in the midst of my university years I realised this, and have tried to capitalise on it within myself and with clients ever since.

Acknowledging when our actions and choices are being driven by avoidance, and knowing how to harness the energy behind that drive,is arguably a key part of channeling perfectionism.

If we can learn to use this energy to create a positive, healthy motivation or ‘work ethic’, we can begin to enjoy the pro’s listed above.

Has perfectionism begun to rule?

I find there are some common signs that let me know that perfectionism has begun to rule and is becoming, or has become problematic.

  • If we have allowed perfectionism to create unrelenting or unrealistic goals and standards,
  • If we feel as though we cannot choose to let something be “good enough”, and
  • If we are almost completely unable to handle or cope with mistakes,

These are usually warning signs that your perfectionistic traits are starting to rule you!

So I invite you to try a few things when you feel like your child’s, or your own perfectionism is getting out of hand.
  • Practice some awareness of why you are seeking perfection.
  • Ask yourself how realistic the ‘worst case scenario’ really is, or if perfection will actually gain that which you seek?
  • Maybe most importantly, ask yourself, is it worth what it will take to get it?
  • Perhaps something a little less than perfect will do just as good a job, and allow you to channel your perfectionism, not be ruled by it.

If you’ve been reading this thinking it’s all sounding a bit like like you or your child and you’re worried that perfectionism might be ‘ruling’, the experienced psychologists at Attuned Psychology can help you learn to identify and work with perfectionism.

Cara Crothers

Clinical Psychologist

Attuned Life

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