Facing the mal-adaptive perfectionist

If you’re anything like me, you get goosebumps when something comes together just perfectly. You don’t settle for ‘good enough,’ you can’t handle sloppy work, mistakes or oversights, and messiness drives you bonkers! If you’re anything like me… you’re a complete and utter perfectionist. Sometimes this can be amazing and really work in your favour. You’re revered at job interviews because you have high attention to detail, have a track record of sensational time management skills and you live for efficient organisational skills.” If you’re creative, your work is admired and celebrated for its utter perfection. If you’re into health and fitness like I am, others comment on how dedicated and motivated you are because on the outside you have the perfect body/diet/training regime. Or whatever else your skill is, you take it to the nth degree of perfectionism because you will never settle for less.

I always knew that I conducted my life to quite a high level of perfectionism and always thought of it as a highly desirable trait. During times of stress – particularly with work – as well as the hectic schedules of every day modern life (exercise, study, catching up with friends, events, errands, meetings, cooking, etc etc etc) the to-do list becomes the mecca of the perfectionist. Time management gets planned with German precision so that every minute of your day is productive and at its most efficient, with multi-tasking featuring frequently to maximise output and get those things OFF the to-do list – to only then have it grow ten times faster than things come off (the stress!).

Being a recovering perfectionist, I’ve developed a keen interest in this area as I believe it’s been at the core of my crippling anxiety and panic attacks, obsessive dieting and exercising, as well as my inability to cope with change. I’ve recently learnt that in psychology there are actually two types of perfectionism. There is the adaptive perfectionist and mal-adaptive perfectionist (and then of course non-perfectionists!) Adaptive perfectionists are those who identify more closely with ambition and strive for excellence in their area of skill or expertise, but without detriment to their self-efficacy, self-esteem, academic excellence or their ability to thrive in social situations.

For the mal-adaptive perfectionists (aka me!), they struggle with the concept of failure and rejection as this dictates their self-worth in society – they fear they will be perceived as a flawed person and therefore not good enough to be accepted or liked.

Some of the most common traits that mal-adaptive perfectionists have include:

  • Everything needs to be completed a specific way, your way.
  • You obsessively ruminate over past events or mistakes all while beating yourself up in the process.
  • You struggle with delegating because no one else can complete the task to your standard
  • You’re in your happy place when everything is under control and ticking along as planned. Any unexpected surprises sends you into complete meltdown mode.
  • You procrastinate, waiting for the perfect moment when you’re motivated and inspired to create perfect work.
  • It’s all about the end goal and you couldn’t care less for the journey or how long it takes, as long as it’s done properly.
  • There is no room for mistakes or failures. If you can’t get it right the first time you berate and chastise yourself over and over again.
  • Life is black and white – it’s all in, or nothing at all. You either succeed or you are a failure.
  • You’re extremely hard on yourself when you can’t achieve your end goal.
  • You become severely down, angry or anxious when you can’t get something right, because it makes you feel inadequate.
  • Success is never good enough, you are always look for the next challenge that will push you higher (which is rarely ever attainable).

From my experience, mal-adaptive perfectionism is like a drug. You get small, fleeting hits that give you a buzz and when they’re over you’re craving more, pushing you for your next hit. Soon the smaller wins aren’t good enough and you need bigger, higher more unattainable achievements to get the same buzz. This sets unbelievably high standards most of which are near impossible to achieve. In the past I have suffered from waves of crippling social anxiety as well as general anxiety, times of intense OCD and throughout my life I’ve had varying forms of eating disorders. No one deserves to live in a mental prison like this and I strongly believe that you have the control to improve your quality of life. The mal-adaptive perfectionist mentality can be challenged and conquered!

I feel like I’ve come a long way in the last few months. I believe that my saving grace in overcoming this mentality has been due to becoming self-aware of these traits in myself and observing how the perfectionist mentality links back to my inability to cope. Researching and blogging has also helped me get my thoughts together and gain better clarity on why I do the things I do, which has in turn helped me process my thoughts and emotions better.

I’ve also seen numerous psychologists in my time to deal with different events in my life, and I would strongly recommend undergoing CBT or finding a clinical psychologist you feel comfortable with if you feel you possess these traits and have trouble coping or managing it. We all want a better life, but rather than framing it as the pursuit to perfection, each day do something small in the pursuit of happiness.