The Many Faces of Perfectionism


Most people don’t realize this, but perfectionism can show up in a lot of different ways. In fact, when I tell my clients they’re perfectionists, they often want to argue with me. 

“But Kelsey,” they’ll say, “I’m WAY too lazy to be a perfectionist! If I were, I’d be so much more productive!” 

Here’s the thing: perfectionism is not defined by the outcome of your behavior. It’s defined by the motivation for your behavior. I can spot a perfectionist a mile away. One reason for this phenomenal power of mine is that I’m also a perfectionist, so I can sniff it out in other people pretty easily. But the other reason is that 100% of my eating disorder clients are perfectionists. So if I'm treating you for an eating disorder, guess what? You’re a perfectionist. 

Despite that statistic, I talk to a lot of people who really don’t understand their perfectionism. To help you understand how your perfectionism works, let me break down it's two big categories:


1. The Workaholic

This is probably the type most people think of when they imagine a perfectionist. It’s the girl who spends all of her free time studying and becomes valedictorian. But what do you call a girl who spends all of her time studying and isn’t the valedictorian? What if she’s a straight C student? Would you still call her a perfectionist? If your answer was “no,” then you’re too focused on the outcome of her behavior to notice the motivation behind it. 

Perfectionism is about fear of failure. If you avoid your fear of failure by studying for 5 hours a night, you might be the best student in school. But even if you’re a C student, you’re still attempting to avoid failure with obsessive studying. The outcome of the behavior - ie. your grades - 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. 


One Last Note

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. In this situation, you're 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 dislikes you, that's probably perfectionism. The same behavior - staying late at work - can function very differently depending on the motivation. A great way to determine if your behavior is perfectionistic is to ask, "am I reacting to fear?"

Those are the two big categories of perfectionism I see my clients struggle with most. You may notice that you have a little of both and that it varies according to what you’re doing. I plan to write more about perfectionism soon. Look out for tips on how to use perfectionism to your advantage, and countering perfectionism based self-criticism!