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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

Perfectionism as Self-Sabotage

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

For many, the appearance of both the words perfectionism and self-sabotage in the same sentence may be quite striking. You may be surprised as to how the two are even related, yet the connection between the two is well-established.

Positive and Negative Perfectionism

Extensive research has been conducted in psychology on the topic of perfectionism, and different subtypes of perfectionism have been defined. The main distinction is between positive and negative / or adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism.

Positive Perfectionism refers to cognitions and behaviours that are directed towards the accomplishment of high-level goals in order to obtain positive consequences (e.g. satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, high self-esteem)

Negative Perfectionism is defined as the urge to achieve high-level goals in order to avoid negative consequences.

Although the difference may seem subtle at first, it can be quickly conceptualized that negative perfectionism is maladaptive and dysfunctional. This sort of perfectionism is the focus of this article.

When Perfectionism Turns Sour...

Perfectionism is the tendency to strive for perfect, ideal results.

Self-sabotage is the unconscious tendency of putting obstacles in front of yourself and setting yourself up for failure, since goals become hard to be attained if you block the path towards them.

Symbolically, the idea that “I always need to be perfect” is such an obstacle, since perfect and absolutely ideal does not exist at all. It is a creation of our mind.

This might sound odd, because we are living in a culture where perfectionism is favored as a highly positive quality. It is often considered a prerequisite to achieve greatness and reflects high ambition and determination towards one’s goals.

Yet there is a fine line as to when and how perfectionism becomes an obstacle to our happiness, success, personal and relational growth. As with everything else in life, there is a continuum and the scale between black and white does leave room for many shades of grey.

If you wonder whether your perfectionistic tendencies actually prevent you from getting where you aim to go, then this article may have you thinking, and subsequently intrigue you to explore solutions that may help break free this dysfunctional pattern that actually does not let you grow.

Inflexible, Dichotomous Thinking

First of all, perfectionism means inflexibility. The focus on one’s goal is so intense, that perhaps they leave no space for any exceptions at all. Yet rules are there to be broken and excepted occasionally. The type of cognitive style that underlies perfectionism is dichotomous thinking.

Dichotomous , black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking means the tendency to only think in terms of extremes, as if no middle solutions are ever present. “I am either perfect or I am a failure, this person I am in love with is either ideal or isn’t worth my time and energy at all, I can either work hard the whole day or do nothing at all and feel lazy and guilty”.

Dichotomous thinking is limiting, dysfunctional and obsolete, because it prevents the individual from actually realizing there are shades of grey in everything. It sets the foundation of a very inflexible mindset and lifestyle, where mistakes are not forgiven or ever excused. Also, dichotomous thinking is a symptom of many psychiatric conditions, such as Borderline Personality Disorder.

Dichtomous thinking manifests towards perfectionism in many different ways.

Procrastination because of High Standards and Expectations

One great example is procrastination. As discussed in a previous article, it is apparent that procrastination may be a product of perfectionism, since perfectionists may not even begin to start a task, unless the ideal conditions and circumstances are present. Since the perfect circumstances may never exist exactly in the way we imagine them to be, a person may indefinitely postpone or delay a task, because what’s the point to even get started, if the idealized image of how that would be is absent?

A perfectionist has such high standards and expectations of themselves, that unless those are fully met, there is no point in even trying. For instance, they may have a goal of starting a project early in the morning and following through a strict and well-planned routine, and if for whichever reason they have difficulty getting started at the predefined time, they may leave their original plan altogether and not get any work done on the aforementioned project at all.

Another manifestation of perfectionism is completing a task in much longer time than required, because of all the back-and-forth steps we took until we regarded the results of our work as perfect.

Pushing Beyond Limits

Because of these high standards, perfectionists may tend to push themselves and others well beyond their limits until the point of exhaustion. Think of the regular workaholic, who may place the high quality of work to such a priority, at the expense of their personal lives and both physical and mental health.

While pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone is a positive quality, since growth rarely happens within one’s comfort zone and it is always good to challenge ourselves to extend our personal boundaries, the problem occurs when there is no golden equilibrium anymore. When the sense of balance between pushing ourselves harder, and allowing ourselves to be where we are, is lost, then we are actually at risk.

Knowing when to let go and pause just for a while, to take a breath and reconstruct our next steps, is as significant as recognizing when we have to hold on and push ourselves just a bit more. Breaking tasks and goals into smaller, easier attainable parts can be a great idea in this direction.

Reluctance in Daring New Ventures

Perfectionistic individuals may also restrict themselves of trying out new things and taking risks, because of fear of failure and rejection. They may prefer to stick to what they know how to do best, because otherwise they may not succeed at all. Giving up is then more viable than moving on. The value of trial-and-error, that is on the foundation of growth, may be considered as useless, exactly because there is no room for error.

On the contrary, persisting beyond mistakes and having a mindset of “When you fail, try again. Fail again, fail better” allows for mistakes and setbacks. After all, recognizing that the path to success is not a straight line, is most definitely the way to go forward. Otherwise, we are doomed to get disappointed at the first difficulty.

Reluctance to Seek Help and Support

The ability to recognize when the support and assistance of others is necessary is a valuable skill as well. However, the perfectionist may be very reluctant to actually reach out to others and seek help, because such a move can activate their fear of failure and rejection too. They perceive their need for external guidance as a sign of weakness, and they will most likely refrain from pursuing it at all. This can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, lack of social support, but also an increased sense of accomplishment and boost in self-confidence- in case they can after all succeed all by themselves; which feeds and fuels the vicious circle of perfectionism further.

High Self-Criticism

Perfectionists may have a strong and loud Inner Critic voice, that evaluates and judges their every move. They may punish themselves too hard whenever they fail, and at the same time judge others equally harsh. At the core of this is self-doubt and low self-worth, where achievement is pursued to counteract negative feelings. Slowly but surely, perfectionism can become an obsession, and it may prevent you from focusing on the present because the ideal image of the future and what lies ahead is always on the foreground.

When things go wrong, a perfectionist may ruminate and dwell so much on all the details of the mistake, that they may lose their focus on figuring our viable and effective solutions to rectify the situation.

Perfectionism and Relationships to Others

Perfectionism has damaging effects not only on personal progress and growth, but also hinders the development and maintenance of healthy relationships. For the perfectionist, the high standards and expectations do not only apply to themselves, but to others as well. This may make it very challenging to form an intimate relationship with another individual, because they can be very strict and unforgiving at the first sign of weakness or trouble.

There is simply little allowing for mistakes, and Allowing is among the Five A’s that guarantee mindful and happy adult relationships. Perfectionism causes a lack in Acceptance as well. The difficulty to accept the other exactly as they are instead of meeting the high standards of the idealized partner we may have created in our imagination, by default creates an obstacle in intimacy and relating.

At the sight of conflict or problems, a perfectionist can much easier judge, criticize and be frustrated and resentful towards their partner as not good enough= not worthy of further efforts, and they may subsequently leave the relationship altogether instead of processing the issue at hand towards discovering a mutually satisfying solution. For the same reason, it may be difficult for a perfectionist to reward others and express gratitude towards them- thus creating a breach in Appreciation too (another one of the Five A’s).

Perfectionistic individuals may unconsciously sabotage their own relationships, also by having a long list of required qualities and characteristics of their ideal partner that they simply have to satisfy. This again leaves little room for error, since admittedly no one is perfect, and we are all bound to show weakness and present our dark side sooner or later.

Interestingly, research shows an association between insecure attachment styles (avoidant and preoccupied ) and negative perfectionism. This makes perfect sense and comes in accordance with the discussion about perfectionism and the ability to form quality intimate relationships above.

To sum this up...

In conclusion, perfectionism may have some detrimental effects on self-growth, personal progress and relationship formation. In contrast to normal, healthy perfectionism, where self-esteem is enhanced due to positive performance and accomplishment and genuine pleasure is derived from efforts and hard work, dysfunctional perfectionism may be actually sabotaging your chances of a happy and fulfilling life.

If this resonates with you, careful introspection and self-reflection in the ways your perfectionistic tendencies may be promoting or obstructing your growth is the suggested pathway.

Understanding perfectionism can be a worthwhile therapeutic goal.

You can contact me here if you wish to explore it further.

References and further reading

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