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Perfectionism is often derived from the duel characteristics of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. Notably, perfectionism drives unrelenting self-improvement while destroying self esteem. However, self-improvement desires may be suppressed when self criticism reigns. Often the harsh self critic creates so much pain over failure that difficult tasks are avoided, abandoning the real work of personal development for superficial tasks to succor the ego.

Three Forms of Perfectionism

Researchers and scientists have defined perfectionism with three sub-types: Self-oriented perfectionism is when individuals attach irrational importance to be perfect, holding unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are critical and punitive in self-evaluations. ​Other-oriented perfectionism means imposing unrealistic standards of perfection on others. ​Socially prescribed perfectionism is when individuals believe others expect them to be perfect and others will harshly judge imperfections. Socially prescribed imperfectionist believe that imperfection will lead to rejection. These expectations can be derived from work environments, cultural tendencies, and parental authoritarianism. 

Behavioral Characteristics of Perfectionism

Labeling behavioral and thinking propensities helps define patterns. However, there is no exactness. We express perfectionism in many ways and in varying intensities. Sometimes personal skills match the unrelenting drive and success follows; other times, unfortunately, abilities fall woefully short, the fear of failure overwhelms, and procrastination, and a life of frightened inaction reigns.

The following are some common elements that accompany perfectionistic thinking.

All-or-nothing thinking can invade our lives in many ways. Psychology Fanatic published an article on all-or-nothing mindsets a few years ago. This nasty bugaboo of thought invades and paralyzes. For the perfectionist, all or nothing thinking impedes many simple joys. For the every day common achiever, such as myself, the middle path provides plenty. We can find joy everywhere in simplicity.

For the perfectionist, the drive for something more interferes with the enjoyments of making small improvements. A return to the gym isn’t good enough. Going to the gym must include a goal of losing fifty pounds in the next 3 months. The joys of improving health and a heart pounding workout are lost when the scale momentary pauses at an unacceptable weight. Perfectionist are highly self critical; sometimes down right mean. “I should have known better,” they chastise.

Nothing is Perfect

Life is complex with many tradeoffs. Our choices, even when carefully considered, may fail in one aspect while succeeding in another. There are risks. Perfectionist don’t allow the inevitable miscalculations to slip by without critical and punishing self judgements.  Fear commonly underlies motivation for perfect achievement. The object of fear, however, may differ. For some it is fear of rejection, others fear of their heightened emotional arousal that accompanies failure.

Perfect performance, the perfectionist hopes, will eliminate the object that they dreadfully fear. They are constantly internally pushed to be the perfect employee, perfect spouse, perfect student, and perfect friend; because if they don’t rejection and anxiety will follow.

Cruelly, their relentless drive for perfection and small failures create more anxiety, and perhaps, rejection the the normal imperfect attempts of living. 

Expectations are critical. They are part of predictions, confidence, and hope. We nurture self-determination when expectations of self match well with the eventual outcome. Highly successful people have high expectations of themselves. However, those expectation are well matched and attainable, leading to routine joys of success.

Perfectionist, on the other hand, have high expectations that are not well matched, often leading to failure. Too many failures in proportion to success, grates on self esteem, and damages self-determination.

Optimistic Expectations

Overly optimistic expectations lead to a spiraling affect, inviting more and more failures, and faster decent into discouragement. We don’t need loftier goals; we need more successes of ordinary, achievable goals.

Perfectionist focus on the end result. Every endeavor is successful or a complete disaster. Since most events fall short of perfection, the perfectionist experiences the complete disaster more often than not. We process the A- in science, the second place finish in the race, the good (but not excellent performance review), and the 38 pound weight loss as failures with a perfectionist mind.

We should fill the path towards our goals with joys. Consequently, we might find we love science in spite of the end grade, became extraordinary fit training for the race, developed new skills at work, and found joy in our new exercising habit.

Learning to enjoy the paths to our goals is a tremendous motivator and key to happiness. Perfectionist lose this opportunity.

Damaging Impact of Failure to Reach Perfection

Unfortunately, when perfectionism turns topic it brings emotional upheaval. Anxiety over details, fear over the unchosen option, endless replaying of unlikely scenarios, and agonizing over failures. 

Disappointments accumulate and emotions crash. Depression and anxiety disorders commonly co-exist with perfectionism mindsets.

Because the demand for success is so high, the motivation to begin is stymied by the fear. History of unmet expectations, failures and heightened emotional arousals frightens and we stall, waiting for everything to be just right before working towards goals. Well, because life is what it is, everything will never be just right. The emotional devastation that accompanies imperfection interferes with the perfectionist’s ability to learn. Constructive criticism implies imperfection. The perfectionist, instead of learn, protects, excusing poor performances, blaming circumstances, and dodging personal responsibility. The only person allowed to criticize is that demeaning voice rattling in their own head. Perfectionists tend to be unhappy, perhaps a product of their harsh self criticism and subjective perception of failure. These repeated life damaging attacks often coincide with low self-esteem.

Perfectionist can also harm relationships, leaving them lonely or isolated. Their critical nature and rigidity can push others away, leaving them without the essential support of loving others. This also leads to lower self-esteem. 

Toxic Drives to be Perfect

Healthy expectations become toxic perfectionism when they lose their functionality. Expectations are toxic when they depress rather than inspire. Perfectionistic drives are toxic when we experience success as failure. Especially, when we fear failure more than hope for success, our expectations are toxic. Our drive for perfection stalls rather than propels. Our subjective interpretation are often muddied. We miss the obvious. Perhaps, our perfectionist attitude masterfully evades our conscious recognition. Like most maladaptive behaviors and thoughts, they live and grow in the dark. 

Become familiar with the symptoms, be honest, and seek outside objectivity for help. Drives for perfectionism have biological ties but we also learn this mode of thinking. Treatments may not be “perfect” but they may mitigate the destruction of toxic perfectionism, allowing the sufferer to enjoy life and small successes.

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