Toxic Perfectionism: We’re Killing Ourselves

Have you ever been called a perfectionist? Do you have a boss, spouse, parent or friend who is a perfectionist? We might define perfectionism as being pedantic, having a generally disapproving attitude, or subscribing to “all-or-nothing” thinking. This definition is both right and wrong. These are the characteristics of those who seek and aim for perfectionism. However, unfortunately perfectionism can be hidden deep down in the secret corners of one’s personality. When perfectionism manifests itself like this, it can sneakily cause behavioral patterns that make life difficult and cause problems. 

The Mind of a Perfectionist 

I say “sneakily” because in general, we tend to consider people to be a perfectionist if they set high standards in their business and private lives, or if they have very organized lives with very strict plans. When it comes to someone who we think of as “average” or “humble” — and this can even be ourselves — we don’t categorize that person as a perfectionist. On the other hand, behind the lives of people who seem to be humble or disorganized on the outside, there can be a perfectionist mind on the inside. Some people who don’t feel like they are successful or fulfilled in their lives fall into this category knowingly or unknowingly. This is because sometimes we set such high expectations from ourselves or others that we can’t even take a step due to fear. We are scared we won’t achieve the high bar we have set for ourselves.

For this reason, we can say that most people who tend to procrastinate are perfectionists. It’s never the right time to start, and it’s always tough to be completely ready. Moreover, our mind runs away from shoulds and shouldn’ts that we impose on ourselves when it comes to working on a task. The responsibilities we assume involuntarily get heavier and heavier. As a result, we strengthen the perception that we can’t achieve anything and we’re insufficient. 

A perfectionist can be obsessed with seeking perfection. For this person, everything should be perfect from houses they visit to the clothes of the people they meet. Even the smallest flaw in their lives is enough to make them feel uncomfortable and nervous. They can plan the whole week perfectly, but if one of their plans change, their world can turn upside down. These people are called “compulsive” in cognitive therapy literature. It is impossible to convince a perfectionist that their life is perfect or flawless — because they consider their own high expectations to just be normal. Some of them are obsessed with success: they always have a list of duties to accomplish and bullet points to tick. These people think about things in terms of the duties they need to accomplish, not individual tasks. That’s why, when you compliment someone who is a perfectionist, the lackluster responses you get are generally because they truly do not believe they have accomplished anything, not because they are being modest.

Unfortunately, setting very high standards for anything in our lives can cause dissatisfaction and disappointment in the long run. The reason for this is the belief that these standards are normal and achievable. Even if you achieve goals that seem to be very difficult, and even if you have a very high status, there are still many more things to achieve. What’s more, the appreciation of other people never satisfies you. Rather than thinking that your goals are unrealistic, you believe that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. When you can’t achieve these goals, you start to blame yourself. Even if what you have achieved never seems sufficient, the feeling of development and progress keeps you going. You keep running towards a point which seems to be more definite. You believe that you will be relaxed and free when you achieve that final goal. The bad news is that this will never happen because you will keep chasing after other goals. This is how perfectionism starts to poison us, as there will always be other examples you’ll compare yourself with, and who you think are “better” than you. When dissatisfaction and the feeling of inadequacy in fulfilling the goals we set become constant, the exhaustion starts.

Realize What Your Mind Says 

If you feel uneasy and nervous when something isn’t in order, you might be a perfectionist who creates a toxic mindset for yourself.

  • “Nothing I’ve done is good enough.”
  • “I deserve to be criticized — by myself, mostly — when I make a mistake.”
  • “Wealth and social status are important to me.”
  • “Sometimes I push myself so hard that my relationships are affected, or I can’t spare time for them.”
  • “There are so many things that I need to do, so I don’t have time to relax and have fun.”

Do these sentences sound familiar to you? If so, maybe you’re lost in the comfort zone of being busy all the time. A perfectionist can sustain a lifestyle or keep doing something just to accomplish it without even remembering why they started it in the first place. At the end of the day, this can turn into existential anxiety and immense pressure. That pressure gets overwhelming, or the question of “What am I doing?” can cause anxiety and depression. Your work-life balance is lost, and you may find yourself spending most of your time trying to plan and organize the things you’re supposed to do instead of actually doing them. This is generally when perfectionism starts to cause serious problems. 

Additionally, these behavioral patterns cause physical ailments like intestinal problems, migraines, ulcers, colitis, skin problems, high blood pressure or arrhythmia. These can also become chronic over time. 

The Life of a Perfectionist 

The strongest negative feeling that perfectionism causes is pressure. Relaxation is pleasant, but for a perfectionist, activities that “don’t serve for a specific purpose” are a waste of time and a reason to feel guilty. For the perfectionist, enjoying life gets harder every day because this depends on a definition of success based on their own criteria. When a mission is completed, they feel pleasure. Some are direct their own anger and bullying towards themselves, while others are very critical and intolerant of others. For this reason, they make people around them feel nervous, and they can be very judgmental. 

Some Mindfulness Exercises for Daily Life 

Do you feel that, even if you push yourself a lot and do your best, some things in your life are slipping out of your control? Even though you work very hard, do you hear from your friends or family that you let them down? Does hearing these things make you feel even worse because you think that everything should be perfect, even in your relationships? Or to put it simply: do you often hear that you’re a perfectionist? If you find yourself saying these things to yourself, you can decrease the pressure and disappointment in your life with a few simple exercises. 

1. Make a list of the pros and cons of being a perfectionist

What benefits do you get from keeping your expectations high and having a certain standard in your life? What do you sacrifice in return? Make a list and be honest with yourself. If you feel the need, ask for help from trusted friends or family. Writing this out and seeing it in front of you is a good mindfulness method. 

2. List the areas in which you feel difficulty in your life 

These can be things that you say “No matter what I do, I can’t achieve it,” or things that are not efficient. It can also be things that you do involuntarily just because you think you need to do them. Remember that this also includes relationships that actually don’t work or people you keep seeing even if you don’t want to.

3. Recognize your expectations in these areas and take notes

For these areas, write down your expectations from yourself and others. After that, be honest with yourself about whether they are realistic or not. Try to revise them accordingly. 

You can make these exercises until you feel that the pressure in your life decreases. What difficulties do you feel in your life? If you feel comfortable to do so, please share the results of these exercises with us in the comments.

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