• Dr. Sharon Livingston

Are You a Perfectionist?

There's a strong drive in our culture to be the best at everything, so most people try to do just that. But the problem is sometimes we lose sight of our goals because we focus too much at being the best worker, best parent, best spouse, best child, best friend, best boss, best athlete . . ..

It is admirable to do our best most of the time. And it often pays off. When people get good grades, they tend to get into better colleges. When we do well at work, we tend to get raises, bonuses, and promotions.

Most of the time if we work hard and do our best, we get ahead professionally and financially.

But … sometimes people go overboard. They become obsessed with being perfect. They want the best body, the best car, the best job, the best kids, the best spouse, the best place to live. We think that if everything is perfect, our lives will be stress-free and that we can finally be happy.

People who become obsessed at being perfect are called perfectionists. And perfectionists, because they want to be the best, tend to find people to help them reach the pinnacle of success.

So, if you’re a coach, you probably have a number of these wonderful, driven people in your practice. And if you identify with the characteristics of a perfectionist, you can be proud, read on and then relax.

How do you know whether or not you’re a perfectionist?

Sometimes perfectionist want learn how to push their co-workers or families to get with the program of perfection. Although perfectionists can be a challenge to themselves, they can develop realistic goals and action plans to fulfill their dreams. They just need awareness and the right tools to help them get on the path of being OK with less than perfect.

Trying to be perfect all the time is grueling, both emotionally and mentally. It adversely affects relationships, and sometimes perfectionists find that in their need to be perfect they've failed at meeting their goals.

Here is some information to help you determine if you're a perfectionist. In the next in this series we’ll discuss how to help transform yourself into someone who is OK with making a mistake every once in a while.

But . . . Isn't everybody a perfectionist?

No! In fact, people who succeed are often not perfectionists at all. They are people who see the world realistically. They are people who have their own internal compass that helps them chart their course. They don't make decisions about their lives based solely on what other people think. Perfectionists are people who need approval from others. They have self-defeating behaviors, like procrastination, that actually sabotage them rather than help them. They have little or no personal satisfaction.

Plus, their relationships are often a train wreck because they are almost as critical of others as they are of themselves.

This is no way to live. In fact, studies have found that perfectionists live shorter lives and are less healthy than non-perfectionists. They suffer much more from anxiety and depression, and may even have more likelihood of developing post-partum depression.

How to determine if you’re a perfectionist Take a look at what follow and see if this sounds familiar.

Here are some of the ways that perfectionists talk:


Perfectionists tend to "should" all over themselves. They will tell you a thousand things they, or other people, ought to be doing.

Some examples are:

"He should be doing what I want."

“They should have given me more time to make it perfect." or

"I should always look good no matter how I feel."


This is a belief that something will have much worse consequences than realistic.

Some examples are,

"If I don't lose 20 pounds my husband will leave me." "If I make one mistake on the annual report I'll get fired."

"If this campaign isn't a hit out of the ballpark I'll never get any new clients again."


Everything is good or bad, right or wrong.

There are no in-between, or gray, areas at all.

Perfectionists view life in extremes.

They'll say things like,

"I'll look weak if I ask for help,"

"Being late is always wrong," or

"I have to always be right."


Perfectionists make very poor and unrealistic predictions about future events. Perfectionists are usually wildly off the mark when they try to predict the future.

Here are some examples,

"I can't go on vacation because my co-workers will undermine me while I'm gone,"

"If my kid flunks math his teacher will think I'm a bad parent."

Besides the dead giveaway statements above, here are some other things to listen and watch for with a new client:


It may seem counterintuitive, but many perfectionists wait until the last minute to get things done. That's often because they are paralyzed with the fear that they may make a mistake or not do a good job. Unfortunately, being a procrastinator sets them up to fulfill the prophecy. Last minute, hurried work tends to have more mistakes and be of lower quality than work performed well before a deadline.


Perfectionists only care about results.

They don't focus on the lessons they learned, the small achievements they made or other positives that happened along the way. They are only interested in outcomes. They aren't interested in extenuating circumstances or sometimes not even the processes used to get the job done.


Perfectionists often have a "my way or the highway" approach to life. They don't like things to change because it makes them feel like they lack control. If they can control people, places, and things around them, they will most likely be perfect. If not, who knows?

Perfectionists never just go with the flow.

They insist on doing everything themselves.

Perfectionists do everything they can to not delegate. Once a job leaves their hands, they have no control over whether it will be performed perfectly. Perfectionist bosses tend to take an employee's work and redo it themselves to meet their specifications, rather than to give the employee the opportunity to learn how to do it herself.


There’s an inability to handle criticism, even if it is constructive.

Most people who want to achieve success welcome constructive criticism. They want to get suggestions on how to improve. Perfectionists do not. The fear and shame they feel about doing something perfectly clouds their ability to see the big picture, and see how valuable constructive criticism can be.


To some extent, fear motivates everybody. But for the perfectionist, it's the only thing that drives them. They take steps toward meeting their goals not because they are excited about meeting their goal. They move toward their goals because of sheer fear that they mail fail.

Excessive worry over what others think.

Perfectionists worry way too much about what people are thinking or saying about them. They sometimes base their decisions on what they think other people will think, rather than what would be in their best interest.


Perfectionists are highly critical not only of themselves, but others, too.

People who have perfectionists as bosses tend to get caught up in the reign of terror unleashed when their boss finds a small mistake in their work.

Perfectionists don't allow employees to make mistakes. They don't allow their spouses or children to make any, either.


People who are perfectionists have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. Nobody can be perfect 100 percent of the time. That is an unrealistic expectation. To try to be perfect is a setup for failure. Everybody has a bad day. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody fails. To delude yourself that you won't leads to nothing but unhappiness.


A perfectionist will dwell on one flaw that they can't seem to get past. It could be a mole on their face or the inability to remember how to spell the word, "accommodate." Whatever the flaw is, it will be such a minor thing that you'll wonder why it disturbs them so much.


Sometimes perfectionists get so stuck in their obsessions that they don't see the big picture – and the really important things that need their attention.


Perfectionists suffer from low self-esteem. Many of them are convinced that if they aren't perfect that they won't be loved or valued for their work.

They tend to dislike their looks more than non-perfectionists. [Note that everybody has some of these tendencies from time to time.] But a person stuck in perfectionism is doing most, if not all of these things, and it's ruining their life.

Healthy people have internal forces that guide them. Perfectionists are guided by outside forces, like other people. It's a tough existence.


All of us have some need to be perfect. It comes with the territory.

We all want to be God-like. It’s what we’ve been taught through culture, religion, parenting.

Please, be kind to yourself if this feels all too familiar. You’re not alone.

In the next post we’ll discuss what’s underneath perfectionism. In the meantime, be appreciative of who you are. I know if you got this far, you deserve a little or LOT of praise for how hard you try and do.

To your success and self appreciation

Doc Sharon