Hidden Signs of Perfectionism

Hidden signs of perfectionism: I had THE messiest room as a kid. Like, leap over the mountain of stuff to get into bed kind of messy. The when-I-go-to-camp-for-the-weekend-my-parents-would-put-everything-in-garbage-bags-for-me-to-sort-when-I-get-home kind of messy.

Meanwhile, my other siblings always seemed to have clean rooms, especially my brother. He wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up and so my parents told him that he had to be clean if he wanted to do that. So he had military corners on his bed and everything was in its proper place. All. The. Time.

But that wasn’t the only way we were different.

From my perspective, my siblings just seemed to naturally do well in school while I struggled. What seemed to come so easily to them was an uphill climb for me.

Especially math.

I remember being in grade seven, 12 years old and my parents realizing that I actually didn’t understand multiplication. I had just memorized the times tables. So when it came to fractions, positive and negative numbers and basic algebra – I was lost.

The weight of knowing that I wasn’t living up to what I thought was my parents’ expectations was devastating. Meanwhile, my highly sensitive heart really struggled and I decided moving forward that I would do everything I could to prevent that from happening again.

You may think that this was my Inner Perfectionist’s origin story where I always pushed myself to be perfect and do things as perfectly as possible. Although it is their origin story, it’s just not in the way you’d think.

Overt perfectionism is like a spotlight, but covert perfectionism lurks in the shadows, just as powerful. Hidden signs of perfectionism

The Hidden Side of Perfectionism

Perfectionism, contrary to popular belief, isn’t a one-size-fits-all trait. However, there’s actually two different kinds: overt and covert.

Hidden signs of perfectionism: Overt Perfectionism is the type that is more visible, characterized by high standards, a relentless drive for flawlessness, and a tendency to set unrealistic goals and sometimes achieve them. Individuals with overt perfectionism are often outwardly critical of themselves and others, striving for external validation and approval. While they ‘always’ look like they have their life together.

Then there’s my dear friend, Covert Perfectionism. On the surface, covert perfectionism may not actually look like perfectionism. In contrast, it looks like messy rooms, disorganization and overwhelm, choosing the safe route, procrastination, and a strong avoidance of being in the spotlight. It involves both external and internal pressure, self-doubt, and a fear of failure. Those with covert perfectionism may avoid taking risks or pursuing opportunities for fear of falling short of their own standards or external expectations.

While overt perfectionism is readily apparent and well known, covert perfectionism can be much sneakier and harder to identify. It can quietly undermine one’s well-being from within and keep us anxious, focused on all the what-ifs and possible outcomes.

The Roots of Perfectionism

Like we’ve talked about before with the Internal Family Systems model, perfectionism isn’t something WE are. It’s a protective mechanism. However, understanding why we developed this protective mechanism is crucial to loosening its grip on the fear button inside of us. Several factors contribute to the development of perfectionistic tendencies:

High expectations can mold us into perfectionists, but understanding why helps us break free from its grip. Hidden signs of perfectionism

Upbringing and Environment: 

  1. High Expectations from Parents: Growing up in an environment where parents have exceedingly high expectations can foster perfectionistic tendencies. Nonetheless, constant pressure to excel academically, athletically, or socially can instill a belief that one must always strive for perfection to gain approval and validation.
  2. Praise for Achievement: Children who receive praise primarily for their achievements rather than their efforts or qualities may internalize the message that success is contingent upon perfection. This emphasis on outcomes over process can fuel a relentless drive for perfectionism.
  3. Comparison to Siblings or Peers: Comparisons to siblings or peers who excel in certain areas can create a competitive atmosphere while  perfection is seen as the benchmark for success. Meanwhile, constantly measuring oneself against others’ achievements can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and the need to constantly prove oneself.
  4. Overemphasis on Performance: Environments that place excessive value on performance over personal growth and well-being can fuel perfectionism. Whether in academic, professional, or extracurricular settings, the relentless pursuit of excellence at the expense of self-care can reinforce perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors.

Cont. of Upbringing and Environment: 

5. Fear of Disappointing Others: Children who grow up feeling responsible for others’ happiness or success may develop perfectionistic tendencies as a means of avoiding disappointment or disapproval from parents, teachers, or peers. Meanwhile, the fear of letting others down can drive them to strive for perfection in all aspects of their lives.

6. Lack of Emotional Support: Environments where emotional support and validation are lacking may push individuals to seek validation through external achievements. Nevertheless, without a strong support system to provide reassurance and encouragement, perfectionism can become a coping mechanism for dealing with feelings of insecurity or inadequacy.

7. Cultural Expectations: Finally, cultural norms and societal expectations can also influence the development of perfectionistic tendencies. However, in cultures that prioritize achievement and success, individuals may feel pressure to meet unattainable standards set by their society, family, or community.

These are just a few examples of how upbringing and environmental factors

Perfectionism isn't one-size-fits-all. For some, it looks like relentless drive; for others, it's hidden in procrastination. Hidden signs of perfectionism

Personality Traits That Could be Hidden Signs of Perfectionism: 

Several personality traits are associated with the development or amplification of perfectionism. The development of a perfectionist mindset is influenced by these traits, whose intensity can vary greatly between individuals:

  1. Highly Sensitive and Empathetic: Highly sensitive and empathetic individuals tend to be organized, diligent, and detail-oriented. While these qualities can be beneficial in many aspects of life, they can also contribute to perfectionism when taken to extremes. Perfectionists with high levels of empathy may set excessively high standards for themselves and struggle to accept anything less than perfection. On the other hand, feeling the disappointment of others so much more deeply, they also have a strong desire to people-please and gain acceptance, which can drive them to pursue perfection as a means of seeking validation and affirmation from external sources.
  2. Overthinking: Overthinking is characterized by tendencies towards anxiety, self-doubt, and emotional instability. Perfectionists that are excellent overthinkers may be particularly prone to negative self-evaluation and fear of failure. Their heightened sensitivity to criticism and tendency to ruminate on mistakes can exacerbate perfectionistic tendencies.
  3. Rigid Thinking: Perfectionists often exhibit rigid thinking  or all-or-nothing thinking patterns, characterized by seeing things in a binary black-and-white situation and struggle with the ability to tolerate ambiguity or uncertainty. This rigidity can manifest in strict adherence to self-imposed rules or standards. On the other hand, making it difficult for perfectionists to adapt to changing circumstances or accept imperfections.
  4. Being a High Achiever: A strong orientation towards achievement and success can fuel perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionists may equate their self-worth with their accomplishments while they set unrealistic high goals for themselves. The pursuit of excellence becomes a driving force in their lives, often at the expense of their well-being.

Cont. of Personality Traits That Could be Hidden Signs of Perfectionism: 

5. Fear of Failure: Perfectionists frequently harbor a deep-seated fear of failure and rejection. This fear can be a powerful motivator while driving them to strive for that vision of perfect as a means of avoiding criticism, disappointment, or disapproval from others.

6. Low Self-Compassion: Perfectionism is often accompanied by a lack of self-compassion and self-acceptance. Perfectionists may be overly critical of themselves while holding themselves to impossibly high standards and berating themselves for even minor mistakes or shortcomings.

Just to be pointed out is that: 

  1.  this is not an exhaustive list, 
  2. you don’t have to check a certain number of boxes before you can label yourself as a perfectionist, and
  3. not everyone who has some or all of these traits becomes a perfectionist.

These experiences and traits of perfectionism exist on the spectrum of serving versus sabotaging.

Hidden signs of perfectionism: Not every scenario will have the same degree of influence from these different personality traits. Recognizing and understanding these traits and how they play out in different scenarios in your life can be incredibly helpful while addressing and overcoming perfectionism. I say this a lot, but it’s the truth – awareness is the first step. We have to know what we’re working with in order to reprogram the self-sabotage belief patterns.

Perfectionism isn’t something WE are. It’s a protective mechanism.

References:

Stoeber, J., & Damian, L. E. (2018). The Clinical Implications of Perfectionism: Evidence from Longitudinal Studies. In F. M. Sirois & D. S. Molnar (Eds.), Perfectionism, Health, and Well-Being (pp. 89-114). Springer.

Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456-470.

Rice, K. G., Ashby, J. S., & Slaney, R. B. (2007). Perfectionism and the five-factor model of personality. Assessment, 14(4), 385-398.

Hill, R. W., McIntire, K., & Bacharach, V. R. (1997). Perfectionism and the big five factors. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 12(1), 257-270.

Stoeber, J., Otto, K., & Dalbert, C. (2009). Perfectionism and the Big Five: Conscientiousness predicts longitudinal increases in self-oriented perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(4), 363-368.

Awareness is the first step to overcoming perfectionism; understanding its origins helps us reprogram our self-sabotaging beliefs.

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Empathy - Alanis Morissette