Most of us are familiar with perfectionism; in fact, many of us are intimately familiar with it, even though we won’t don the label. Why? Because being a perfectionist comes with stereotypes that paint us as virtually impossible to work with. We can’t ever meet our own standards, get caught up in every detail, and never think anyone else does a good enough job. Right? Well, sometimes, but that’s not the whole story.
Truthfully, perfectionism isn’t as black and white as it seems. Let’s take a look at the nuances of being a perfectionist, some surprising ways it shows up, and how to get the advantages without the anxiety.
Is Being a Perfectionist a Weakness or a Strength?
To put it simply: it’s both. It depends on how you approach it and how it approaches you. In other words, perfectionism shows itself in many different ways. This means it can be both good and bad. Some of the advantages of being a perfectionist include:
- Being highly organized
- Paying close attention to detail
- Striving to master a task or perform better
- High levels of motivation
Maybe it’s obvious how these positive traits can help you succeed if you’re a perfectionist. What might be less obvious is how some of the more negative perfectionistic traits can help you succeed as well. Read on to learn five personality traits of perfectionists, see if you recognize any of them in yourself, and get science-backed ways to make perfectionism work for you.
Trait 1: You compare yourself to everyone else. All the time.
It’s common for perfectionists to compare themselves and their achievements to how others are doing (or seem to be doing) in life. While some perfectionists might feel that they’re failing compared to their peers, other types of perfectionists feel that the people around them don’t meet the high standards they should be meeting.
Either way, this can make perfectionists competitive coworkers. You might spend too much time at work monitoring what others are doing, or you might spend your time worrying that others are leaving you behind. This can create a vicious cycle. (And who likes those?) You become more anxious about your work, which makes your perfectionistic tendencies stronger, which in turn causes you to compare yourself to others again. Sound familiar?
How to make it work for you
While we’re not necessarily behind the whole comparison thing, research suggests that it can be motivating. Wait, really? Yes, according to the research review, it can urge perfectionists to achieve their goals, whether at work or in other aspects of life.
But when you start to feel like you can’t keep up, remember that you’re probably only seeing a small sliver of someone else’s success. You’re missing out on the times they’ve failed or their own internal context. Life isn’t Instagram (…even Instagram isn’t really Instagram). So keep an eye on how you’re reacting. If you’re using comparison as a healthy push forward, it can work. If you’re internalizing and making yourself feel less-than, it’s probably best to shift focus.
And remember that (for the most part) other people are not your competition. If you need to compare yourself with anyone, try comparing yourself with your past self, and you’ll see how far you’ve really come. Science shows that using your past self as motivation for your present one can help change behavior.
Trait 2: You hold yourself and others to impossible standards
Being a perfectionist comes with very high, often unrealistic standards and expectations. And those expectations are far-reaching.
While some perfectionists will have these standards mainly for themselves, other perfectionists feel that these high standards come from those around them. Another group might even have too-high expectations for others. Regardless of the camp you fall under, these standards and expectations can strike any area of life—from how you perform at work to how clean the bathroom is. (Toothbrush-scrubbing tile-cleaners, we’re looking at you.)
This trait can backfire. Rather than doing your best to hit those standards, you might simply be paralyzed by them. E.g., you might have trouble turning in your work if it didn’t qualify as perfect. Research shows that perfectionists will even avoid the doctor due to a fear of imperfect results from something as simple as a checkup.
This falls into a dimension of perfectionism that researchers call perfectionistic concerns. Another way to say it is being paralyzed by those high standards. People with perfectionistic concerns don’t finish projects, get work done, or hit deadlines. Those standards make it impossible to succeed, leaving perfectionists to procrastinate and lose motivation. There’s a darker side to all of this too. Those in the perfectionistic concerns area are at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.
How to make it work for you
It may sound weird, but having high standards can be a good thing. It just depends on what those standards apply to.
In a lot of cases, perfectionists’ focus on high standards and good results means they miss out on the experience and dare we say fun of the learning experience. So take that focus you already have on achieving and just shift it a little. Instead of making your high standards all about the final outcome, hold yourself to high standards of learning and growing too.
And remember that it’s okay to want to achieve, as long as your standards don’t keep you from completing tasks or cause a lot of distress. And if you find that they do, you don’t have to face the struggle alone. Reach out to a counselor or therapist in your area who can help you reframe some of these thoughts. Because we know it’s not easy.
Trait 3: You struggle with anxiety
Unfortunately, distress and anxiety can come along for the ride. Some research links anxiety to perfectionistic traits like being overly concerned with mistakes, having those unrealistic standards, and feeling crushing doubt about your actions. What else adds to this less-than-desirable mix? Others’ criticism or high expectations—even if those expectations come from your interpretation of them.
In many cases, anxiety involves a fear of failure or making mistakes. And that’s tough. Because these concerns can keep you from learning new skills or trying new things. You might be afraid to take on challenges or new assignments at work. In other words, you’re kind of stuck.
How to make it work for you
Truthfully, anxiety that keeps you from doing the things you need or want to do isn’t something to mess with. However, if you can bring your anxiety down to a teeny tiny level, you can use it for good, research says.
First, though, you have to learn how to dial it back. Depending on your anxiety levels, most plans to get it under control entail a combination of lifestyle changes and sometimes a good therapist. However, there are some simple exercises you can do to create more calm in the moment.
Here’s one of them: When you start to get anxious, try taking a step back, counting to 10, and taking a few deep breaths. Ten not enough? Double it. The point is to focus on something else to give your system a chance to settle.
Remember those lifestyle changes? Getting enough sleep, keeping the cocktails and coffee to a minimum, and eating meals with vegetables can bring that anxiety down a notch.
Now that you’re a little calmer, you can start making your anxiety work for you. View it as motivation for being more productive, performing better, or focusing more. Try to listen to your anxiety too; realize when it’s telling you to slow down and do less.
Trait 4: You can’t make a decision to save your life
The next trait of being a perfectionist? Struggling to make decisions. Because perfectionists are so worried about making the “right” decision, they overthink potential consequences and don’t actually make a choice at all.
You might be familiar with this—we know, choosing a restaurant is hard in these Yelp-laden days—but it edges toward perfectionism when it comes to making big life decisions. Like what you want to do with it. Being a perfectionist involves hard work, but it also correlates with career indecision. This is more common among perfectionists who feel other people put pressure on them than for perfectionists who put pressure on themselves.
How to make it work for you
We don’t necessarily recommend changing jobs every time you question your choice, but we are big fans of figuring out what you really want. In other words, ask yourself big questions. And then listen to the answers. Why exactly isn’t this the job for you? Is it the hours? The work itself? Your boss? Once you figure out what doesn’t work, you can start to change it.
For example, if it’s the endless Excel sheets you can’t stand, you can ask to try a new project (within reason), collaborate with a new team, or try to shift some of your less-enjoyable tasks to others better suited for them. It might not solve everything, but it’s going to get you a lot closer to the answer.
Trait 5: You’re a rigid thinker
Many perfectionists find it hard to switch gears, even if it’s clear their current way of doing things doesn’t work. It can be hard for perfectionists to take other people’s suggestions or incorporate new data into tasks or problem-solving. Aka perfectionists struggle with change.
Here’s what that might look like at work: You work on a problem the same way, even if coworkers have moved on. And if you’re deep into that task, it might be hard for you to start something else, even if you need to. Switching jobs, or even working with new bosses or coworkers, can be difficult when you’re used to doing something a certain way.
How to make it work for you
While rigid thinking can be a component of negative perfectionism, the flip side is that you can be highly motivated and focused. So keep the focus on getting your tasks done, but work to keep others’ suggestions in mind. If what you’re doing doesn’t work, take a step back and reevaluate. Think of the new approach as a new “task,” which can keep you from feeling like your method is being interrupted.
Being a perfectionist at work and in the world = complicated
Perfectionism gets a bad rap—and there’s good reason and research to back that up. But it’s not all negative. Once you identify the perfectionistic traits you embody, you can start to tweak the way you think about and act upon them. It’s all in the framing. And the right one can make the most of your detail-oriented, focused personality with less of the perfectionistic pitfalls.
Your turn: What are your personal pros and cons of being a perfectionist? Tell us how you push back on perfect in the comments below.
Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.