While calling something “perfect” is the highest of compliments—a perfectly done steak, a perfect Olympic performance, the perfect prom dress—calling someone a perfectionist is anything but.
Why? It implies a fussy control freak who can’t relax. Perfectionists have a reputation of being hard-driving. Uncompromising. Relentless. And often, it turns out, very successful. Steve Jobs was a notorious perfectionist. Martha Stewart calls herself a “maniacal perfectionist.” Serena Williams proudly wears the perfectionist label.
All three of these people—and likely some of the perfectionists you know (maybe even you)—have risen to the heights of their field, made themselves rich and famous, and have delivered great work. But not without cost.
It’s these costs—anger, stress, abrasiveness, being seen as picky, rigid, or over-controlling—that makes most people shun the perfectionist label.
As a result, perfectionists almost never claim to be perfectionists. And further, because the label is a misnomer, most perfectionists don’t even realize they’re perfectionists.
How is it a misnomer? Contrary to the name, most perfectionists aren’t driven by the pursuit of perfection, they’re driven by the avoidance of failure. Being a perfectionist isn’t about being perfect, it’s about never being good enough.
Should you call yourself a perfectionist? There are some common characteristics, like doing things well, thoroughly, or efficiently. Indeed, sweating the small stuff is an advantage when it comes to impressing the boss, turning out a restaurant-worthy dinner party, or organizing the garage with the intricacy of a game of Tetris.
But it can be a hindrance when you spend so much time tinkering that you never actually get a project done, get sucked so far into the details that you lose the forest for the trees, or insist that the two sides to every argument are your way and the wrong way.
But there are also lesser-known signs of perfectionism. For starters, here are 9 of them. Are you a *perfect* match? (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
Sign #1: You always look great.
You never seem to have a bad hair day; your outfit always looks pulled together. No chipped nail polish or two-day stubble for you, plus it’s not painful for others to look at you (every mother of a tween boy knows what I mean—”No, you cannot wear mid-calf socks and Adidas slides to Uncle Melvin’s funeral!”)
Now, you might be the type of perfectionist who doesn’t care what they look like—you might save your perfectionism for other domains. Steve Jobs reportedly wore a black turtleneck and Levi’s every day so he didn’t have to waste neurons on deciding what to wear.
On the other hand, carried to an extreme, being perfectionistic about appearance is a big risk factor for eating disorders. Anorexia is often lethal. And bulimia and binge eating are often signs of cracks in a perfectionistic facade—all the pressure you put on yourself has to escape at some point, in this case through a binge on decidedly imperfect foods.
Sign #2: You keep ideas and projects to yourself until they’re fully formed.
Unlike Saturday Night Live, you prefer not to broadcast your ideas or what you’re working on until they’re ready for prime time. The prospect of presenting something half-baked is as abhorrent as going out half-naked. In brainstorming sessions at work, you wonder how people can offer up such bad ideas without being embarrassed. You marvel not only at how they’re not afraid for their underdone ideas to fail, but how sometimes, they hit on something big. You wish you could spitball with them, but it just doesn’t feel safe.
Sign #3: Lists!
Lists and calendars and schedules, oh my! You are organized and efficient. The upside is that you get the most out of your time. You’re productive and get things done effectively and well—nothing wrong with that at all.
But sometimes productivity isn’t the goal. With an overly-rigid schedule or a laser focus on checking off to-dos, it can be hard to be flexible, to find time to spontaneously chit-chat, or to have those unscheduled run-ins and conversations that are not only fun, but deepen your relationships and spark creativity.
Sign #4: It’s tough to relax.
Or kick back, or relax, or let loose. Feeling restless and driven often gets mistaken for being a workaholic, but underneath is usually deep-seated perfectionism.
If this is you, unstructured time feels wrong—there’s something else you could be doing. You resent the hours it takes to go for a hike, watch a movie, or play a softball game with your friends because it’s such a time and energy suck. You may leave your vacation time on the table because breaks interrupt your routine. And holidays are the best time to get stuff done because no one else is around to bother you.
Likewise, you’ve tried, but you just can’t meditate. You’re not sure if you’re doing it right, and that makes it stressful. Plus, just sitting there trying to be in the now makes you restless—it feels like you’re wasting time.
Sign #5: You can’t concentrate if your surroundings aren’t clean.
In many people’s experience, it’s true that outer order equals inner calm. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being neat and organized, but it can also a hidden sign of perfectionism. Preferring outer order is fine if it’s not getting in your way, but check for these three things:
- Does clearing clutter, cleaning, and organizing takes so much time and energy it leaves you unable to do what you’re supposed to be doing?
- Are you unable to transition away from cleaning, making you chronically late or stressed?
- Or, is following your partner around with a vacuum or criticism straining your relationship?
Sign #6. You procrastinate.
Procrastination doesn’t look like perfectionism on the surface. Instead, it often looks like laziness or distractibility. But if you’re worried there’s no way you can meet your own standards or that you’ll make the wrong decision and later regret it, it’s understandable that you put off writing that term paper, moving forward on home renovations, or settling on a vacation destination.
Sign #7: You do one of two things when it comes to decision-making.
These two decision-making methods appear totally different, but both are rooted in perfectionism.
The first is taking a long time to make a decision because you worry it won’t be right. You stand in your closet trying to decide what to wear while your whole family is waiting in the car, or you’re still staring at the menu while the waiter glances at his watch. You hate Costco and IKEA because too many choices make you feel paralyzed.
The second method is that you are very decisive because you know the “right” way. You automatically hire the “best” contractor, go to the “best” hairstylist, and only get croissants at the “best” bakery. If someone offers to bring a dish to supper, you send them a recipe or tell them exactly where to pick up the ingredients.
Sign #8: You can’t delegate.
It’s better just to do it yourself. If someone else does it, things never turn out the way you want and you’d have to redo it anyway. When you do it yourself, things get done to your high standards, but as a result, everything takes longer and you’re exhausted from taking on so much.
Sign #9: You hate waste.
You can’t bear to waste time, food, money, or energy.
You can’t bear to waste time, food, money, or energy. Walking away from sunk costs or abandoning a project makes you feel queasy—you’d rather fight through and make it right. A full fridge makes you anxious because so much food has the potential to go to waste. You can’t bear to leave miles or points on the table, even if it means ending up with a rewards subscription for socks (which is a thing, apparently). More seriously, you may even stay in a bad relationship because of all the time and energy you’ve already invested.
So what should you do if you said, “That’s me!” to any of the 9 signs? Is this a problem? Indeed, what’s so bad about being organized, hardworking, and looking fabulous all the time?
Well, since you asked, here’s the line: Perfectionism works against you when your high standards and hard work are driven by fear.
It’s fine to work hard and aim high when you love what you’re doing and want it to be the best it can be. But it’s another thing to become paralyzed or consumed due to a fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, fear of being judged or rejected, or fear that you can’t compensate enough for your inherent inadequacies.
For me, making lists and being detail-oriented works well—it makes me efficient and able to balance a dozen different hats.
But perfectionism trips me up, too. I don’t like to tell anyone I’m working on something until it’s done or nearly done, so I miss out on feedback that, ironically, could have made it better. I’m still learning how to delegate and have a history of being overly picky, but I’m getting better at letting things go.
For you, if you think your life might be better if you loosened your grip, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Some aspects of your perfectionism are likely propelling you forward. Keep those. But you can work on the places perfectionism is holding you back. (And maybe even resist making them into a list).