Posted in Freedom Friday

Toxic Perfectionism

I have a confession to make. I’m not sure if this is the right forum to admit this, but I’ll give it a shot. I’m going to write this in stream of consciousness without editing any of it. Let’s see how far I get for this Freedom Friday post.

Toxic Perfectionism
Toxic Perfectionism

The confession. If you haven’t figured it out from the title, I was a perfectionist. When I say that, I mean it in the strictest sense of the word. Thankfully, a decade or so ago, I had put it all away and I’m happier for it.

Being a former perfectionist allows me the liberty to recognize when others are suffering from the same debilitating condition. The unfortunate thing about it is not having the power to prevent them from causing harm to their neighbors or themselves. It’s like seeing someone holding a baseball bat over a brand new convertible and waiting for that person to trash it because it’s not a Rolls Royce.

You see, perfectionism convinces sufferers they’re not worthy. Strange, I know. Bear with me. Perfectionists always compare their situation with others, and in so doing, they minimize their achievements because they’re convinced the other guy has it better. Remember that saying? How does it go? Oh, yes, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Thing is, it’s not. It’s an illusion. The Joneses show you what they want you to see. But what you don’t see are their heavy debts, the fighting that goes on behind closed doors, and the screaming kids. Perfectionists can’t keep up with the Joneses because The Joneses will always be one step ahead.

Then there’s the guilt. That guilt is the driving force behind the life of a perfectionist. Without it, they’d be like everyone else—relatively normal. But why the guilt? Simple, guilt causes perfectionists to set unattainable goals based on unrealistic expectations. A case in point is the guy who graduates college and a week later expects to score a job. Sorry, real life doesn’t work that way, unless you’re a drop out and found your own company like Bill Gates did, but that’s a story for another day.

The worst part about having been a former perfectionist is knowing I had gone through life thinking nothing was ever good enough. It all goes with not feeling worthy, comparing myself with others, and the guilt. It’s that “not good enough” feeling, which kills the most. As wonderful, happy and joyful life is, if perfectionists feel not as good as required, it doesn’t matter what happens in their life, they will always feel inadequate.

Perfectionists can’t survive without knowing they’re in control.

As I’d mentioned, it’s been a decade or more since I’ve given up perfectionism and, let me tell you, it’s been like someone had thrown the light switch. What a difference. Life is not about being perfect. It is not about others having more than we do. It is not about feeling unworthy, not feeling good enough, and feeling guilty every moment we take a breath. In all honesty, no one can control every situation, but it sure makes sense to want to try. Funny thing about it is what makes sense to a perfectionist is wrong.

That’s how I broke the habit, going against myself to want to be who I am without the turmoil. Now, I’m happy knowing I’m always giving my best regardless of how I feel. It’s a matter of maturing. It’s a matter of living.


Do you know perfectionists in your life? What is it that has affected you most knowing them?


Jack Flacco is an author and the founder of Looking to God Ministries, an organization dedicated to spreading the Word of God through outreach programs, literature and preaching.

22 thoughts on “Toxic Perfectionism

  1. One of the things that helped me move away from perfectionism was being in the business world. When you manage loads of people and projects, you can’t possibly achieve perfection all the time. You have to prioritize. The trick for me was learning when I needed “good” and when I needed “good enough.” The marginal cost of going beyond “good enough” was too high when “good enough” was all that was required.

  2. I blame advertising and marketing, to a degree. They constantly try to sell us the idea of the perfect life (through purchasing their products), the unattainable – look and live like a movie star, attract new groovy friends, overachieve in your business and studies, make a dream home, make the right first impression, permanent good health and happiness, have the perfect night out, cook food that a pro chef would be proud of, the perfect holiday, be better than your friends, etc. Perfection is unattainable because it’s totally subjective.

  3. Jack, I’m pleased that you were able to overcome perfectionism. One big step is in identifying whether it is toxic to your life or not. I guess I wish I could say “been there, done that,” but I have to confess I’m “there, and still doing that”! Just today, my husband had to urge me to not get out a pen and correct a grammatical error in a magazine I was reading. Recognizing whether perfectionism in the moment is warranted or not . . . well, through the therapy I’ve had and readings and observations I’ve done, it seems to me to be a question of whether it disturbs the overall applecart of your life (“how many hours a day do you spend doing these tasks?”; “could you voluntarily stop doing these behaviors and, if so, do you get anxious if you stop them?” the mental-health questionnaires say). Control is exactly the touch point, and for me it stems from a traumatic upbringing under which I felt I had little to no control. To amforte66 above, I know you didn’t ask me and I don’t mean to horn in on the conversation, but I would humbly like to offer several thoughts. Control/perfectionism is like a security blanket (or it was/is for me), so I would say to try to channel your daughter’s gifts into maybe one or two activities that she really enjoys, rather than latching onto the idea of trying to completely vanquish the anxiety/OCD (at least, I had to let go of that idea, which was in itself limiting; then you will get into this endless loop of “am I doing well in quelling my perfectionism,” such that it becomes its own sort of perfectionism or competition, if that makes sense). If she’s super-psyched about grammar or calculus or writing computer code or volleyball or whatever, get her involved more with those positive activities where she can shine and meet others of varying levels, including gifted ones like herself. With therapy over time, I’ve been able to realize that my (sometimes self-deprecating or “obsessive” or negative self-talk or unhelpful thoughts) are merely thoughts, not actions or realities. Mindfulness training might also help her be more comfortable with the person she is and move forward regardless of the perfectionism strain. My layperson’s opinion is that something of perfectionism or analyticality is part and parcel of a person’s temperament (which is somewhat static). And, finally, I commend you for asking questions and being an involved parent. Not all of us have that, and that in and of itself can help her with many obstacles, knowing there is a loving and kind support mechanism there. Oh, and some exercises she could do, if she isn’t already: keeping thought records, doing mindfulness exercises, role-playing of anxiety-inducing situations beforehand, and something as simple as writing out “accomplishments” lists for herself that she could keep in a prominent place where she can review it and see it regularly, to help replace the negative self-talk and self-torture, really, with the reality of her accomplishments. Anyway, sorry to be so long-winded. My best wishes to you and to her.

  4. I would love to know how you conquered this. My 15 year old suffers from perfectionism/OCD/anxiety and it really rules her life. She compares herself to her older sisters, other students, basically anyone who breathes. Always an overachiever, she finds ways to denigrate every accomplishment and describe how it could have been better or come up with excuses as to why it was just a fluke. The negative self talk must be overwhelming for her. I assume this is a battle she will need to fight on her own and she is receiving help, but any tips or things that helped you overcome this would be appreciated. It is a really difficult way to live your life. Thanks for writing such an honest, interesting post. 🙂

    1. In my case, it was the proverbial waking-up-one-morning-not-wanting-to-feel-that-way-anymore. I’m not trying to minimize what others go through, but I’d recognized the condition and replaced it with other habits. Literally, when comparing myself with others I had to say to myself, “Pointless.” And would allow the thought to pass in order to carry on. The thing about it is that the thought still occurs. It’s just a matter of recognizing and not acting on it.

      What doesn’t work is trying to push the thought out of the mind. Best having it pass, remaining calm and replacing it with a better thought. At least, that’s how it worked for me. The urge to fall back into old ways is always there. In my mind, I had to destroy the concept of perfectionism and create new habits, such as being good enough is good enough.

      Nowadays, I’m always aiming for 90%. This way if I ever get anything perfect, I surprise myself.

      Anyway, I hope this helps. 🙂

      1. Thank you for this. It is incredibly helpful and increases my understanding of a strategy she can use to work through this. I like your word “pointless” and will suggest this to her or ask her to come up with her own word to use when these thoughts pop into her head. I know she’s been told that she can’t push thoughts out of her head, but must replace them…this seems to be really hard to do!! It will take a lot of hard work, desire and dedication on her part to overcome this, just as it did for you. Kudos to you for choosing to live a better life. 🙂 Thanks again, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to walk me through your strategies.

  5. yeah, this is the last demon I have to slay with my husband. I’ve gotten through to him on the whole “my job is not who I am” thing and have been working on the whole “not giving a crap about what others have, what I am and what I have is good enough” thing. It’s a rough go! His father is that way and that’s how my husband grew up, always living in the shadow of the mythical ‘Joneses’ and that your job was everything. It’s sad and it’s destructive to every aspect of a happy family life and it makes me sad…..
    very nicely done, Jack!
    : )

  6. Besides, if you remember your Outer Limits episodes (the original series, not the remake), the Xanti Misfits were “perfectionist rulers” who sent their convicts to this planet because they didn’t want to have to execute them themselves and they knew we would do it for them. Since the Xantis looked like ants with Woody Allen heads (they are my favorite of all the Outer Limits critters) they were kind of creepy. You wouldn’t want to have something in common with them, now, would you?

    1. ” The INvasion of the Woody Allen Alien Perfectionists “. No, can’t say I’d want to have anything in common with those guys. & can’t say I’ve seen that episode in reruns. But I’m sure I’d have remembered it. 🙂

  7. Is there a name for a person who seeks perfection in some instances and is too bone idle to get the job done properly in others? There are times when I’m doing design work when I dwell on virtually imperceptible flaws to get things perfect, and then at other times will happily overlook a glaring error because I’m too lazy to bother fixing it.

    Protoperfectionist; Alternoperfectionist; Conditonalalperfectionist; Imperfectionist!

  8. Sometimes, I get into a cycle of perfectionism. I’ll stare at a plate and have to square everything on it. At that point, I get up, and walk away, or one of my siblings purposefully messes things up for me.

  9. I am a recovering perfectionist. It used to be if I didn’t think I could do something perfectly, I just wouldn’t do it. I missed out on a lot of fun experiences because I didn’t want anyone to see me mess up. And I refused to practice something if other people could see or hear me. I was really talented in piano, but I hated practicing because I hated my family hearing all the mistakes. I wasn’t trying to keep up with anyone who was doing something better. I just really hated others seeing me make any kind of mistake. Having kids forced me to get over that fear. 🙂

  10. I think perfectionism doesn’t have to be toxic, though I believe it is always stressful. I am not a perfectionist myself but I know someone who is and that person doesn’t have a negative vibe at all. They’re just — clear that all things they do must be to the highest standard possible. There are no excuses, there are only ways to fix it and perfect the situation. I guess I am comfortable with that, as long as someone doesn’t demand that level of perfection from me. 🙂

  11. Could perfectionism be related to a form / certain level of OCD ? I have bouts of OCD, but I am not consistently a perfectionist who has to get things squared away, sorted right or die trying. That was the way my dad was. A perfectionist who couldn’t get things 100 % perfect.

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