Does Perfectionism Cause Poor Self-Esteem? Research Gives 3 Compelling Connection Between Perfectionism & Low Self-Esteem
Whether perfectionism causes poor self-esteem or individuals with poor self-esteem are more prone to the dangers of perfectionism is an interesting question that needs to be explored more.
Although on one hand being a high-achiever can push you to accomplish your goals and create the life of your dreams, there is often a downside to perfectionism. Research has shown a strong link between perfectionism and poor body image, anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem, and extreme worry.
I remember feeling skeptic about my friend’s strong work ethic and professionalism. She would spend a long hours in the office and ensure that she completed her work no matter what. She never hesitated to cancel her social plans and choose to work instead of having a relaxing time with her friends.
She never seemed satisfied with her work performance and would beat herself down for making even the tiniest mistake. As a Psychologist, I could sense that there is something bigger playing a role here. After long conversations with her, I could observe how she had set unrealistically high standards for herself because she believed that her self-esteem is tied to her work.
The need to be the perfect employee came at the cost of her mental health, her social life, and her self-esteem. Her perfectionism made her question everything which eventually led to poor self-esteem.
My friend is not the only one who is caught up in the woes of perfectionism. On the surface level, it looks pretty great to set yourself up to high standards and then reach those standards. However, perfectionism goes much deeper than that.
There are three types of Perfectionism:
It is when people set unreasonably high standards for themselves. They have a strong belief that they need to be perfect or achieve perfectionism in everything they do. Individuals with self-oriented perfectionism tend to do okay in low-stress situations but when confronted with pressure or criticism it becomes extremely difficult for them to regulate their thoughts and worry.
Self-oriented perfectionism has been linked to eating disorders and is seen as a risk factor for poor self-esteem and psychological disorders.
Individuals who expect perfectionism or set high standards for others exhibit signs of others-oriented perfectionism. This type of perfectionism is often detrimental to relationships. It takes away the ability to empathize and deal with others at their own pace and capabilities.
Societal-oriented perfectionism tends to increase chances of depression and anxiety and it is linked with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. This is because it is tied to what others think of you and your self-esteem is heavily based on what others expect from you and the perceived high standards of society.
To give a light-hearted representation of what is societal-oriented perfectionism let’s look at Monica Geller from Friends. She would go above and beyond to be the perfect hostess even it brought high levels of stress and irrational behaviors.
Individuals who thrive obsessively thrive to be or look perfect in the eyes of others tend to have poor self-esteem.
“I don’t think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive,” says Paul Hewitt, Ph.D.
Individuals with perfectionism may believe it to be adaptive and even necessary to achieve their goals. However, perfectionism is more maladaptive than beneficial in any way.
Here is how the need to be perfect is tied to poor self-esteem and vice versa.
Perfectionists have a black and white mentality
‘If it is not perfect then it is not worth it’
This is often the mindset of perfectionists. They strongly believe that if something is not black then it means it is white. In other ways, if someone with high levels of perfectionism makes a mistake, they will have a belief such as ‘If I made a mistake, I am a loser.
42% of people with poor self-esteem believe that even a minor mistake will give their boss the impression that they are incompetent at work. This tendency was seen in people with self-oriented perfectionism.
My friend was a perfectionist whose self-esteem was based deeply on her work performance. She believed that if she does not excel in her career at all times then she failed to achieve success. This black and white mentality blinded her to all the things she has achieved so far and got caught up in negative self-perceptions that cause poor self-esteem.
Perfectionists Set Unrealistic Standards
One of the major characteristics of perfectionists is that they set unreasonably high standards for themselves and for others. They are constantly trapped in thoughts of how to become better or how to achieve even more.
This may sound like great quality but in the long run, it can take a serious toll on your self-esteem. This is because it is a high possibility that they may not always be able to reach these standards of perfection and the failure to do so can bring anxiety, excessive worry, and poor self-esteem.
The inevitable failure to meet the unrealistic standards can lead to poor self-esteem.
In the context of others-oriented perfectionism, expecting others to complete the tasks in the exact way that you want or expecting them to reach your high standards of perfectionism can lead to conflicts and spoil genuine connections.
50% of people with other-oriented perfectionism get impatient when a family member makes a mistake. These individuals also showed poor self-esteem as compared to the other 50% who deal with mistakes in a more patient manner.
High Levels of Dissatisfaction
Perfectionists seldom feel satisfied with their performance. With every target, they achieve they want to keep thriving for more because they believe that nothing they do can be enough.
This could be rooted in poor self-esteem. Individuals with poor self-esteem feel that they need to keep doing more in order to seek others’ approval and validation. They also tend to believe that they ‘need to be perfect’ for others to like them.
For that reason, they suffer from chronic dissatisfaction because no matter how much they achieve, a voice inside them keeps telling them that they are not good enough.
How To Deal with Perfectionism
Working on perfectionism can feel difficult because it comes with a strong reluctance to see perfectionism as a problem.
Counselling psychologist says, “People with perfectionism don’t see anything wrong with high standards. At least initially. Therefore, it is important to raise awareness about the negative effects of perfectionism in their lives”
Question You Can Ask Yourself:
Does my need for perfection affect my physical health?
Is it affecting other areas of my life? For instance, individuals who strive to achieve perfectionism in their work life tend to do so at the expense of their social and personal needs.
What will happen after I achieve the set target?
Dev is a college student who believed that if he did not excel in all his subjects then his future is doomed. He dedicated his days and his nights to studies and neglected his friends, family, and at times even basic hygiene needs. By the end of the semester, he had lost 7kgs of weight and felt depressed and highly anxious. Although he was able to get excellent grades, he still did not look happy or satisfied. He felt empty and doomed and suffered from low self-esteem.
Questioning your needs, priorities, and wants can help you change your perception of perfection.
How Can Therapy Help?
Therapy is highly effective in understanding the roots of perfectionism and gradually changing your beliefs to make them more adaptive and healthier.
It could be difficult to work on perfectionism on your own because as said by the Counselling Psychologist many people with perfectionism don’t see it as a problem at all.
Therapy gives a safe space where you can explore how the need to be perfect is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, and life in general.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has proven to work tremendously in overcoming the challenges of perfection. It helps you to understand that perfectionism is not the end goal and how you can still achieve great things without it taking a toll on your health and well-being.
Since perfectionism is linked with poor self-esteem, therapy can aim to improve your self-esteem and make you feel more confident and assured about who you are. It helps you to change your perspectives and deal with yourself and others with compassion rather than unrealistic perfection.
I encouraged my friend to go to therapy. The suggestion made her feel defensive and question her self-esteem. However, it took some time to assure her that therapy is a safe space where she can openly talk about her thoughts and emotions and freely explore her need for perfection.
Today she feels positive about her decision to go to therapy. It helped her to become more aware of her irrational beliefs, unrealistic standards, and negative thought patterns. She worked on her poor self-esteem and gradually learned healthier ways to achieve her work targets without compromising her mental health, social needs, and personal life.
Having goals and working hard towards them is a great quality to have. However, the need to excel is different from the need to be perfect. Perfectionist tendencies can lead to chronic dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem, tensed relationships, and steal away the beauty of life.
Challenging the strong beliefs can help you to see the negative side of perfectionism and eventually work on building healthier ways to achieve your goals and being okay when things don’t go exactly the way you wanted them to.
However, we recommend going to therapy because, at times biases, lack of awareness, and our defense mechanisms can stop us from seeing our toxic thought patterns and behaviors. Therapist can nudge you to become aware, accept and change your ideas of perfection, reduce the anxiety that comes with it and build poor self-esteem.