By Kristen
Updated on November 24, 2007

Perfectionism is a form of anxiety. You feel like you need to be perfect because you are afraid of what people will think if you aren't. The thought of having people find out what a fraud and a failure you really are (in your opinion) could send you into a panic attack.

Being a perfectionist is both good and bad. Having high standards and doing your best is a good thing, but making yourself sick with worry because of a minor mistake or avoiding things you enjoy because you might not be the best at it is not healthy. Anxiety and stress from perfectionist beliefs can cause health problems, including heart disease. The goal is to find balance between the positive aspects of perfectionism and the harmful reactions to or beliefs behind perfectionism.

How does perfectionism start.

Perfectionism starts in childhood, and, like almost everything psychological, stems from your core beliefs. At some point in your childhood, you learned that you seemed to receive more appreciation and respect for what you did rather than who you were. Over time you had experiences that enforced this concept until you finally develop a core belief that you are not worthy of love or respect just for being yourself; you have to do something, and the better you do it, the more respect or love you will get. In more extreme cases, you develop the belief that if you make any mistakes at all or fail to be better than everyone else, then you are not worthy of respect or love at all.

"I'm not a perfectionist because I'm not perfect..."

"...and I realize that it is impossible to be perfect."

Being a perfectionist and being perfect are two entirely different things. Everyone seems to say "nobody is perfect," but such statements are precisely the problem. Just by saying "nobody is perfect" acknowledges that perfection is something that we are not.

In reality, each of us is already perfect. You are the perfect you. Nobody could ever do a better job of being you. The problem is that perfectionists want to do a perfect job of being somebody else.

What is a perfectionist?

A perfectionist is somebody who thinks that they should be doing better. No matter what they do, they should have done it better. They may feel that everybody is one step ahead of them, and they can't keep up. They may feel that they should be one step ahead of everyone else, and they're not. Secretly, they may believe that nothing they do will ever be good enough. (Even worse, perfectionists often believe that everybody else is making the same comparisons, but in reality that's rarely true.)

Some perfectionists wish to be perfect in everything they do. Others are only concerned with certain areas of their lives. (e.g. My house must be perfectly kept even though I'm admittedly a sloppy dresser and actually don't care about how I look.)

Overachievers and Slackers

Most perfectionists go to great lengths to avoid mistakes because mistakes mean they're not doing things well enough.

It is impossible to avoid mistakes, so when mistakes happen, the perfectionist beats himself up. Large mistakes are devastating, but even small mistakes can create intense anxiety. Mistakes are a huge source of agony. To avoid mistakes, a perfectionist may become an overachiever and actually attempt to do everything perfectly. A perfectionist may also choose to give up completely, "I can't be perfect, so why even try?"

Avoiding Mistakes

If you are a perfectionist, to avoid mistakes a you may...

Recovery from Perfectionism

If you want to release yourself from the turmoil of being a perfectionist, you need to get to the root of your problem. Take time to figure out your core beliefs and values. It's a ton of work, but you don't have to do it all in one sitting. Take fifteen minutes every day to think about what's important to you and why. Your values and core beliefs probably made sense to you when you adopted them, but do they still make sense to you today? Does having a messy house mean that you are a bad person? Does stumbling over your words make you stupid? Does it really matter what other people think? Think about what makes sense to you today and allow yourself to develop new beliefs and abandon the old. The stress of perfectionism will soon fade into an appreciation for the present without criticism.

As a coping tool, you can do things like set time limits to complete projects. It can be difficult to stop yourself once you start on a project because you may try to do it perfectly. Setting time limits ensures that you don't spend an excessive amount of time on any project.

Be realistic. If your plans to be perfect don't balance with the important areas of your life, then your goal is not realistic. You can have a goal to be as good as an Olympic athlete in your favorite sport, but you will also need to have a realistic plan to achieve this goal. This plan would include hours of training per day, paying for a trainer, traveling to competitions, etc. What are you willing to give up to follow this plan? Are you willing to give up your relationships? Would you give up time with your children? Would you be willing to live a lifestyle that may be less comfortable than you are accustomed to, so you can afford the costs of training? If those prices are too high to pay, then maybe you should accept that being a perfect athlete isn't important enough to worry about and let the anxiety of being an imperfect athlete melt away into the comfort of knowing that you are focusing on the things you value most.