Perfectionism is an unhealthy way to live. I have witnessed the emotional turmoil of too many people who have this particular belief system with its ridiculous expectations. Believing that only one outcome (the perfect one!) is acceptable is incompatible with emotional health and creative living.

I've worked with many perfectionists over the years and have found that convincing them of the insidiousness of this particular mindset presents quite a challenge. If you are a perfectionist, changing your beliefs, expectations and behaviors won't be easy but it will open the path to greater health, happiness, and self-confidence.

Perfectionists generally fit into three types: those who expect perfection from themselves; those who expect perfection from others only and those who expect it from both themselves and others. You or the others you plague with these expectations will never be perfect or attain perfection in any desired goal. It’s not going to happen, no matter what.

Expecting the impossible is a straight shot to trouble, disappointment and rocky interpersonal relationships. Perfectionism is an unhealthy way to live. I have witnessed the emotional turmoil of too many people who have this particular belief system with its ridiculous expectations. Believing that only one outcome (the perfect one!) is acceptable is incompatible with emotional health and creative living.

I've worked with many perfectionists over the years and have found that convincing them of the insidiousness of this particular mindset presents quite a challenge. If you are a perfectionist, changing your beliefs, expectations and behaviors won't be easy but it will open the path to greater health, happiness, and self-confidence.

Perfectionists generally fit into three types: those who expect perfection from themselves; those who expect perfection from others only and those who expect it from both themselves and others. You or the others you plague with these expectations will never be perfect or attain perfection in any desired goal. It’s not going to happen, no matter what.

Expecting the impossible is a straight shot to trouble, disappointment and rocky interpersonal relationships. It consumes so much energy to follow this particular brand of dead-end thinking. Harriet Braiker, author and psychologist, warns, “Striving for excellence motivates you, striving for perfection is demoralizing."

Think about it for a moment. If something has to be done to a tee, there’s not much room for exploration, discovery, spontaneity and joy. Costly, debilitating and not much fun! Keep in mind that the perfectionist is worried about all the details of the outcome. That’s a powerful way to put out the fire and marginalize whatever gains you or anyone else makes. This also makes it hard to be open to unexpected and/or disguised opportunities. It affects other people adversely because it's your way or the highway.

Signs of Perfectionism

* Unrealistic expectations of self or others
* Narrow idea of what success is
* Broad definition of failure
* Fear of disapproval
* Fear of failure
* Fear of making mistakes
* All or nothing thinking
* Long list of "shoulds"
* Setting goals that are unachievable
* Conflict in relationships because of unrealistic expectations and disappointment when others don't meet those expectations
* Unwillingness to show others their vulnerabilities
* Strong need to be in control
* Excessive need for achievement
* Focus on their or the other person's mistakes, missteps
* Procrastination because they don't want to complete something that isn't perfect
* Inordinate amount of worrying and guilt
* Main focus on details, not the "big picture"
* Very sensitive to criticism

Beliefs

* If I can control myself and my world, the likelihood increases that I will be perfect
* I need to be perfect in order to gain the respect and approval of others
* Success comes more easily for others than for me
* Whatever I do is never good enough
* Anything worth doing is worth being done perfectly
* My self-worth is directly related to my performance

What the Perfectionist Often Experiences

* By focusing on unrealistic goals, the perfectionist is set up for failure
* Unresolved relationship conflicts often occur for perfectionists who want others to do things their way
* They have difficulty feeling successful and peaceful
* They often apply this philosophy even to leisure activities: "anything worth doing is worth doing right"
* Perfectionists ultimately find that their productivity suffers
* They too often experience loneliness, sadness, frustration and feelings of inadequacy
* They experience sensitivity to what others think and are negatively affected if there is disapproval
* Instead of finding what is important to them, perfectionists become hung up on the dreaded "shoulds"
* Finding peace is allusive to perfectionists
* They often feel stressed, anxious, depressed; many perfectionists have symptoms that rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis of a stress, anxiety, depressive or eating disorder
* They can be mired in procrastination
* They may have Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
* Perfectionists may experience headaches, gastrointestinal difficulties, muscle tension, and cardiovascular problems

What To Do About It

* Change your belief that perfectionism is something to strive for; dispute it when the thought comes to mind
* Identify and admit the perfectionism beliefs and behaviors that are a major part of your life
* Dispute the beliefs and expectations that are out of line with reality
* Understand that the mistakes and failures are opportunities to learn and get stronger; adopt that as part of your new belief system
* Give yourself permission to be imperfect and to make mistakes; learn to see the humor in your mistakes; think of mistakes as chances to learn
* Accept your weaknesses. See them as part of your uniqueness
* Inject a humorous approach to your life and goals; so many things in life just aren't that serious or important; develop a 10 point scale for importance and make sure when you assign a number that there are few or no tens
* Resign as CEO of the universe; it will be a relief for you and others
* Learn more about mindfulness and living in the moment; spend time with people who live in the moment
* Be kinder and more patient with others; learn to listen to others and have empathy
* Understand that procrastination is a form of avoidance; the perfectionist avoids finishing a project because then an evaluation of its perfection will take be done by him/her or by someone else
* Set realistic, achievable goals; congratulate yourself when you complete any part of your goal
* Get to know what you really want in life
* Look at life and your goals as a journey, not as a destination
* When something bad happens have an optimistic attitude: don't take it personally, don't think it's permanent and don't allow it to affect unrelated parts of your life
* Figure out what fears lurk behind your perfectionism and face them directly
* If this is too difficult to do alone, talk to a psychologist or other health care professional

You can be excellent, but not perfect, at some chosen goals, and just plain mediocre at others that don’t matter much at all. Make the decision to be selective about what endeavors merit your finest efforts, and then plan to revel in your accomplishments -- even the ones that may fall short of the mark.

For more information on the power of Positive Psychology, look for my book It's Your Little Red Wagon… Six Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams), available on Amazon.com

Copyright 2009. Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D.

Author's Bio: 

Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D., has spent close to three decades helping individuals live their dreams through her work as a licensed psychologist, life coach and author. An expert in human behavior and motivation, Dr. Esonis specializes in the burgeoning field of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning and the core strengths that can lead to the achievement of one's personally-defined goals. She earned her bachelor and masters degrees at Ohio University and her doctoral degree at Boston College.

Dr. Esonis is licensed in psychology in Arizona and Massachusetts, and in addition to her many years of private practice as a clinician and coach, she supervised masters and doctoral students in their clinical work at Arizona State University. She has served as a hospital staff psychologist and has lectured on topics ranging from stress management, meditation and relaxation training to assertiveness and sleep management. Today, she teaches Positive Psychology in the Extended Learning Program at California State University San Marcos, and she has a private practice in the San Diego area dedicated to personal and professional coaching.

Her latest book, It's Your Little Red Wagon... 6 Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (available on Amazon.com), is Dr. Esonis' contribution to the field of Positive Psychology, presenting proven success factors and strength-building techniques that can lead individuals to a life of purpose, motivation and personally-defined happiness. Her website is at http://www.PositivePathLifeCoaching.com.

Dr. Esonis is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Association for Behavior and Cognitive Therapy (ABCT), the San Diego Professionals Coaches Alliance (SDPCA), the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), and is a Founding Member of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP).