UNDERSTANDING THE TWO FACES OF PERFECTIONISM

There’s a certain expectation of what perfectionism looks like. Consider the other side of the spectrum, and how it may be holding you back. 


BY: KELSEY FYFFE, MA, LPC

Many folks believe that they can spot a perfectionist a mile away. However, what most people don’t realize is that perfectionism can show up in ways that may appear contradicting. The key thing to remember: perfectionism is not defined by the outcome of your behavior.

It’s actually defined by the motivation for your behavior.

To help you understand how perfectionism works and how it may apply to you or someone you know, let’s break down into its two main categories.

1. The Workaholic

This is probably the type most people think of when they imagine a perfectionist. For example, it’s the working professional who puts in long hours to please their boss and co-workers, and nearly always collects accolades. But what do you call someone who does put in the long hours, but doesn’t appear to be accomplishing a lot? Would you still call that person a perfectionist? If your answer was “no,” then you’re too focused on the outcome of the behavior to notice the motivation behind it.

Perfectionism is about fear of failure. If you avoid your fear of failure by working hours into the night, you might excel at work. But even if you don’t, you’re still attempting to avoid failure by obsessively working. The outcome of the behavior – i.e. your actual success at work – doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that you’re furiously striving to ensure you’re good enough to avoid feeling like you’re not good enough.

If your anxiety encourages workaholic tendencies, then you’re a perfectionist regardless of the results.

2. The Procrastinator

This is the one that always takes people by surprise. Sometimes, when our fear of failure is too overwhelming, we avoid the situation entirely.  Have you ever become so stressed by the idea of a project that you just put it off? Many perfectionists will want to stop a project before they even begin due to feeling overwhelmed by the outrageously high bar they set.

This looks like putting off writing your presentation for work until the last possible minute because creating something as awesome as what you imagine seems utterly daunting. On the outside, it looks like laziness, but really it’s a potent fear of failure keeping people stuck in inaction. If you can relate to the experience of feeling stuck because you don’t know how to actualize the ideal image in your head, you’re a perfectionist.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that perfectionism is a reactive behavior, not proactive.

A proactive behavior is one that creates something new. Staying late at work because you’re excited about a new project and want to get it started is proactive because behavior is motivated by excitement. Perfectionism is reactive because, by definition, it is a response to fear. If you stay late at work out of fear that your boss may be disappointed with you, that’s likely perfectionism. The same behavior – staying late at work – can function very differently depending on the motivation. To determine if your behavior is perfectionistic, ask the question, “Am I reacting to fear?”

By staying aware of the intention behind your actions, you’ve accomplished the first step to countering what’s been standing in your way.

Adapted from the original article.
HEADER IMAGE: ALEXA MAZZARELLO

Kelsey Fyffe, MA, LPC is a clinically-trained therapist based in Houston specializing in anxiety and eating disorders. By helping individuals recognize that their anxiety, worries, and obsessions do not have to hold them back from living the life they want, Kelsey helps them learn the skills and strategies needed to calm their mind and feel at ease. Learn more about Kelsey at Live Mindfully Psychotherapy.

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