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How do I know if I'm a perfectionist?

How do I know if I’m a perfectionist? There are certainly many definitions of perfectionism – ranging from those offered by popular psychology, to the descriptions provided by the Enneagram, to the tropes we see in the media in characters like Monica Geller, Leslie Knope and Isabella Madrigal.

At Beyond Perfect, we support high-achieving women who feel stuck in the perfectionist cycle. This cycle is marked by three primary underlying beliefs: (1) Perceived control (the belief that we can control the vast majority of outcomes through conscientious, hard work); (2) All-or-nothing perceptive (the belief that only a small number of outcomes are acceptable, and there is typically a best way to achieve any given outcome); and (3) Fear of failure (the belief that we have very valid, justified reasons to fear not achieving the outcomes we define as acceptable.)

Taken together, these beliefs fuel a particular pattern for high achieving women: one where we work hard and try to be perfect at everything we do. When we get the positive outcome we hope for, we feel temporary satisfaction, and our underlying beliefs are validated. But as our fear of failure sets in, our satisfaction wanes, and we identify more to perfect and improve. When we get a less-than-perfect outcome, high-achieving perfectionists tend to feel a great deal of self-blame, shame, and fear because our underlying beliefs cause us to feel we are fully responsible for the outcome, that the outcome is wholly negative, and that the worst-case scenario may happen as a result of even a small failure. This leads to a validation of our underlying beliefs, diminished confidence, and identification of more to perfect and improve – starting the cycle all over again.

Early in life, we experience the left-hand (positive outcome) side of the cycle more frequently due to outcomes being relatively within our control and clearly defined (with grades as an example). But later in life, we begin to live in the right-hand (negative outcome) side of the cycle more frequently due to life’s increasing complexity and decreasing controllability (our jobs become more challenging and ambiguous, our bodies age, our kids don’t listen to us). Because perfectionism has often served us well earlier in life and helped us achieve a variety of positive outcomes, we have a hard time seeing this dynamic for what it is and increasingly engage in self-blame for not being able to consistently achieve the outcomes we obtained more easily earlier in life.

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