The truth about perfectionism

A couple of weeks ago, I published a post called The Truth About Panic Attacks. I had such a great response to it and it seems to have helped a lot of people. While writing my book review of Overcoming Perfectionism, I realised I could write a similar post on my perfectionism. As I said then, I'm not a medical professional or a scientist, so that post was, like this one is, written from my own experience. 

In my CBT sessions, it became apparent that most of my problems are caused by underlying perfectionism.

When you think of perfectionism, what comes to mind? A perfectly tidy home, a highly motivated and organised person, someone who always goes above and beyond the call of duty. Let me tell you a little secret: I am none of those things. Needless to say, I was shocked when my therapist mentioned perfectionism because I am the messiest, most forgetful, incessantly chaotic person you'll ever meet.

Here's the deal: My perfectionism only affects certain areas of my life, mostly my career (and studies when I was in uni) and relationships. I set myself incredibly high targets and when I don't achieve them, I have failed. It's very black and white- I succeed or I fail. If I do succeed, I'll tell myself I could have done better and reset my targets which inevitably lead to further feelings of failure.

Here's an example: At university, I was adamant that I was going to graduate with a first. In order to do this, I told myself that I would have to get a first (70%) in every single assessment. My third year art module was made up of two units with equal weighting. For the first unit, I was awarded 80%, the highest mark in my year. However, I'd printed it at home and the print quality had been slightly off, something that was commented on in my feedback. I beat myself up for not getting it professionally printed and focused all my energy on what I would have achieved if I had done so, rather than the huge success I'd achieved. For my next assignment, I received 69% and cried all the way home because it was 1 mark off a first. Even though the final result for my module was just around 75%, I was still devastated. (As it turns out, I didn't get a first in every module. In fact, I really did fail one module and I still graduated with a first- an example of how my idea of failure is very seldom accurate)

My level of perfectionism is so severe that typing the above paragraph, 5 years after the event, I still feel embarrassed by the way I let myself down. Another problem with the extent of my perfectionism is that it manifests in the potential of failure. Lateness is something that stresses me out immensely. There have been times where running late has brought on so much anxiety, because I worry about letting people down, that I have been unable to leave the house at all, thus letting people down more than I would have done if I'd just been a little late.

Similarly, I am a terrible procrastinator. If I don't start something, I can't fail! I worry so much about the failure that I put it off for as long as possible, until it reaches a point where I'm unlikely to be able to carry it out to my full ability anyway. This is particularly evident in my desire to be a perfect wife. Anyone who knows me well will be able to attest to the fact that I do nothing around the house. I just bury my head in the sand and hope all the chores will go away... which they eventually do, but only because Rich gets them done!

It seems this is also linked to my terrible memory. Although I'm convinced that I genuinely forget, my therapist is adamant that I don't really forget anything. Instead, I just put the thought right out of my head so I don't need to address it.

This has been a lengthy post so I'll summarise with bullet points. 

- Someone with perfectionism may well not be the most organised, motivated person.
- Procrastination is very, very common with perfectionism.
- Perfectionists may avoid something altogether in order to avoid "failing" at it.
- Very high standards mean that a huge success to other people may be seen as a failure.

For some reason, my blog is the only thing that isn't surrounded by these negative symptoms. It's probably apparent that my perfectionist qualities are still there- I'm super organised, I post daily, I have high standards. However, I don't procrastinate or forget things anywhere near as much when it comes to blogging! I'm very grateful to have this as my release!


  1. That rings very true with me. I am currently doing my PhD. Does not stop me from thinking that i am way to stupid. I definitely avoid even starting things out of fear that i will fail at them. In the end, i will stay below of what i could have achieved simply because i started way to late. It is a self full filling prophecy really. I also already messed up friendships because i was to scared to deal with tiny things, so i rather lost contact.
    I wish there would be an easy way out of it. But its great to hear that i am not alone.

  2. I think you've just described me in your post. I know what you mean about it not being obvious. I'm not the tidiest of people but things have to be in the "right" place i.e. where I know where to find them. Very informative and I look forward to the next post (if there is one)

    Fiona (@WishHopeDreams)

  3. I can empathise with so much here. I recently wrote about the hashtag floating around: #relationshipgoals. I've banned myself from reading anything to do with it, including sites like Thought Catalog because they make me analyse every single bit of my life, but especially my relationships. '30 reasons why you should break up with him' leads to "OH MY GOD HE'S NOT THE ONE, I'M GOING TO DIE ALOOOOOOOOOOONE". It takes a lot of willpower but I leave it well alone now and I'm in such a better place, but my perfectionism/expectations are bloody stubborn.

  4. You pretty much summed my school life/relationships up. My friends struggle to understand why I get stressed about wanting to get the best out of a situation... for instance I aimed for Distinctions in all of my assignments, even when timing was tight because I felt I had to do my absolute best. However as a person I'm a bit of a clean freak, and particularly when I'm at the gym I'll tell myself to keep pushing, my sister doesn't get it but if I want something I really go for it x

  5. I hear ya. I feel like stupid science has only gone and made this worse. The pressure of academia (and no doubt teaching in your case) causes this to get worse I think. The procrastination thing is definitely a symptom, I'm really struggling to get my thesis done because I fear the bad stuff. Ho hum! I shall get on and I like you enjoy blogging as a release x

  6. I am a perfectionist, and I can relate to so much in this post. It can be a positive thing at times but I also find myself putting unnecessary pressure on myself, and I find sometimes where I try to do things 'perfectly' it doesn't happen because I'm so worried about it being perfect, which is silly. KBxx

  7. This post was so interesting to me. I am the world's biggest procrastinator (plus very disorganised) and always feel like nothing I've done is good enough. While at Secondary School I received a House Honour but convinced myself that it was a mistake and I didn't deserve it!

    I'm just not too sure how I can change these aspects of my personality which are so ingrained but you have made me think about how it affects me now. Thanks for bringing up the subject.

  8. I identify so much with this. I never thought I was a perfectionist! Especially with my procrastinating and that I am not the tidiest, but I'm focused on certain areas (like you) and it drives a lot of my mental illness. Might explain why my therapist mentioned it back in the day... I just thought she was mad!


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