Perfectionists might find themselves isolated from others due to their lofty self imposed standards. A recovering perfectionist shares how they became free. Agata Boxe, Discover magazine. November 2020.
On a rainy January afternoon, I walked down the hallways of a huge building and entered a grim, windowless room. A frazzled adjunct college instructor, I was about to interview for a full-time faculty position. I took a seat at the conference table and faced the search committee. Soon, the nine members began firing questions at me. I tackled each without hesitation, until they asked about a class I had taught that hadn’t gone as planned. I started scrambling for an answer. The truth was that I always spent hours preparing for every lecture, activity and discussion to maintain control and avoid anything unexpected. It’s part of my all-consuming quest for perfection.
Besides making me fumble through a job interview, this tendency has driven me to fret over the tiniest mistakes, waste ridiculous amounts of time procrastinating and stress to the point of burnout. The issue began threatening my sanity soon after I immigrated to the U.S. in my mid-20s. Growing inner turmoil has accumulated over the 10 years since my move. So, I recently decided to take a painful peek into my psyche to confront the bad, the ugly and the imperfect.
Obsessing Over Imperfections
I called Gordon Flett, a psychologist at York University in Toronto who has studied and theorized about the inner workings of a perfectionist’s mind. He painted a bleak picture: Many perfectionists spend a lot of time worrying and brooding, immersed in a secret dialogue with themselves about needing to be flawless. “When they’re falling short of perfection, they’re constantly ruminating about it,” he says.
Flett has even developed a scale to measure “mistake rumination” — mulling over something one has done wrong — and examined how it relates to perfectionism. In a series of three studies involving more than 970 people, Flett and his colleagues asked participants to think about the last time they made a major mistake. The people then rated how much they had agonized about the event.
The researchers identified a link between amplified mistake rumination and two flavors of perfectionism. One entailed having an internal drive for perfection; the other involved believing others require you to be impeccable — which may or may not coincide with reality. The results of Flett’s study, published in 2019 in the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, also revealed a strong connection between overthinking past mistakes and an uptick in incessant thoughts urging a person to be perfect — what some call perfectionistic automatic thoughts.
I’ve struggled with both mistake rumination and thoughts demanding flawlessness. I once took up an obsessive hobby: inspecting my past job applications for errors. One night, armed with a glass of cabernet and accompanied by my three cats, I pored over the cover letter I had submitted to the nine-person committee. Then I found it. A missing comma, staring me down in the first paragraph. I beat myself up over it for days, panicking that someone might have noticed. The voice driving me toward perfection reverberated in my mind. No amount of wine, nor comforting nudges from my furry assistants, would silence the self-inflicted shame.
Perfectionists tend to feel self-conscious about everything they do. “That leads to a lot of self-reflection, and for some, to feeling like they’re an impostor,” Flett says, “that they’re not as good as others.”
Indeed, a body of research has shown that perfectionism often goes hand in hand with impostor syndrome — doubting your accomplishments and fearing you will be sniffed out as a fraud. Kevin Cokley, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, examined feelings of intellectual phoniness, self-esteem and two kinds of perfectionism — adaptive and maladaptive — in 468 people. Adaptive perfectionists simply have high personal standards, while maladaptive ones set a bar that they believe is out of reach. (Some researchers, including Flett, contend that no form of perfectionism is healthy. But there are certainly shades of severity.)
Cokley found a relationship between impostor syndrome and indicators of maladaptive perfectionism, but not the adaptive form. The link grew stronger if a person’s self-esteem was low, according to the findings published in 2018 in Personality and Individual Differences. “Even if an individual is competent, smart and highly accomplished, having these maladaptive perfectionism tendencies can lead to one feeling like an impostor,” Cokley says.