Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Unhealthy Perfectionism But Were Afraid To Ask Because You Think You Ought To Know Everything Already

I have a number of clients who are dealing with the pressure to live up to a “great potential,” or who are high achievers but still feel like they are failing, or who avoid activities where they might not succeed immediately. They can be extremely self-critical and anxious because they feel responsible to meet impossible standards and because the identity as a “gifted person” started at an early age. I began to write about this and then realized I already had! Many times! So here you go. Your very own compilation of articles on what I call extrinsic or unhealthy perfectionism. In case you are wondering I write about the healthy variety (striving for beauty, balance, harmony, precision, and justice) here. Click on the links below to read each entire article.

(photo by Unsplash)

The Roots of Unhealthy Perfectionism and What to do About It

“…What if, from the time you were 2 years old, you were told how smart you were. Over and over. Enthusiastically. By (well-meaning) parents and doting relatives. What if they praised you repeatedly for your many achievements and your perfect grades. What if you could tell that your parents needed you to be smart; that they felt better about themselves because you were so capable. What if you were so persuasive that they gave you too much control and not enough limits…What if, when you arrived at elementary school, the work was too easy. You knew it before you were taught it. You learned things without really trying. What if you could get perfect scores on tests without studying and your scores were held up as an example for your fellow students. What if you were told by your teachers that you were the best student they’d ever had. Do you think that you might grow up terrified of failure? Afraid to disappoint others? …”

“…It’s complicated. You are not used to struggling because typically you learn many things quickly. But it is good and appropriate that some things take time and practice. This is how it is for most people. You may want to quit because this struggle may confirm in your mind that you are not gifted after all. But giftedness does not equal advanced abilities in all areas all the time! And you need to model for your kids that patience, practice, struggle, and setbacks are all part of growth and learning. Sometimes the greatest satisfaction comes after an achievement borne of struggle…”

If I’m so Smart, Why do I Feel Like a Failure?

“…Expectations were high. And so was the pressure. But you didn’t realize it at the time. Until you got to college. Suddenly, you were surrounded by smart kids. You were no longer the star. Not only that. Some of your classes were hard; studying was required. Studying? What’s that? You got your first “C.” You loved psychology and philosophy but you’d never faced a workload like this. No one else seemed to be having trouble. You started procrastinating, as usual, but last minute finishes didn’t work anymore. It was confusing and overwhelming. Your identity was crumbling; you became anxious and depressed…”

How to Face Your Fear of Failure

“…What if we all made lists of our so-called failures until we were no longer scared of them? We look them straight in the eyes and see how small and insignificant most of them are or, if, in fact, they are actually even failures. And for the big ones, perhaps, after we get some distance, we can see what we learned. You know the saying, right? You learn more from your failures than your successes. Well, it is true! Then, you might also examine what you are calling failures to see if they are losses but not failures…”

The Hazards of Praise and Too Much Smartness

“…Your worth as a human is not based on your smartness or your achievements. You are lovable because of your kindness, your compassion and your sensitivity. Your you-ness…”

“…Take a moment. Sit down with your child self. Look at their eager, idealistic, adorable face. Breathe. Hold this child close and say: No matter what you accomplish or don’t accomplish, you are a dear, kind, sensitive soul. No matter what you achieve or don’t achieve, you are loved. Achievements may come. Achievements may go. Love is the point...”

The Courage to Dive into Deep Therapy

You might also develop unhealthy perfectionism if you grew up in a dysfunctional family. “…It can be scary and frustrating to start the psychotherapy journey. But I promise you, it’s so worth it. I’ve been in and out of therapies for many years, working with different folks as my needs changed. I started in my 30’s. And, if you must know, I was a mess back then. And I am so much less of a mess now. Ask my sister. She’ll corroborate my story. And, hey. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for the children in your life, in your community, and in your world. Stopping your family’s dysfunctional legacy will heal future and past generations. It just might make the world much less of a mess. You never know.”

I Have to Know it Before I Learn It: A Gifted Kid’s Conundrum

“…He came to believe that all learning should come easily. If it didn’t, there was something terribly wrong. Ben never learned how to study. Or that it was normal for some learning to be a struggle. Ironically, even though he felt like a failure and like he wasn’t smart because of his experiences in school, he also believed that he shouldn’t have to study something to understand it. This created confusion, anxiety, paralysis, and avoidance when there was a chance that he might not grasp a concept fast enough or succeed at a task. If it wasn’t easy, he didn’t do it…”

10 Signs You Are a Perfectionist and 10 Things You Can Do About It

1. You remember every mistake you ever made–even the time you threw the chair in kindergarten because you already knew that A is for Apple and you didn’t know why they didn’t seem to realize that A is actually for Ardent Avaricious Alligator


To my bloggEEs: Are you dealing with this type of perfectionism? What has it been like? What have you found that is helpful? And, as always, thank you for being here and for your love notes. I am about to see a proof copy of my new book Saving Your Rainforest Mind: A Guided Journal for the Curious, Creative, Smart, & Sensitive. I am hoping I have learned enough about my own perfectionism that I don’t decide I need to rewrite the whole thing. Once I see and approve the proof, it might still take a month or so to launch. Hang in there with me!

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

6 responses to “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Unhealthy Perfectionism But Were Afraid To Ask Because You Think You Ought To Know Everything Already”

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  1. itssue42 Avatar

    Your blog title is so painfully true. Toss in a family with no affection, no praise, just a demanding mother who says you should of course always do perfect work in school because you can… If I could do anything in my life over again, I would have a different mother. Have never found anything difficult, but constantly berated myself for not knowing everything automatically, which left me avoiding huge parts of life. Until I hit my 60s, it still hadn’t dawned on me that my childhood training to “always be perfect” was a death sentence. Of course, now I have to struggle with having been so ‘stupid’ and taking so long to realize…. 😉
    If I could do one thing for a young rainforest mind, it would be to convince them to accept and realize that no matter how “gifted” you are, you cannot logically know one billionth of what there is to know. Just enjoy life, thrive on learning, be glad you don’t know everything… how boring would that be if we really did know everything ahead of time. 😀
    So looking forward to your next book. Hugs

    1. pprober Avatar

      In my experience, it takes many of us into our 60s to realize these things, Sue! Can’t wait for you to see my book. 🙂

  2. Marina Avatar

    How funny, Paula, that you should say “You are not used to struggling because typically you learn many things quickly. But it is good and appropriate that some things take time and practice. This is how it is for most people.”
    I had to struggle when learning such things I was not interested in (memorising historical dates, playing the piano, and maths, for example). But I picked up English from TV in no time, watching series (I’m not a native speaker). What I learnt at school and with adults was that my way of learning (quickly) was a very bad way of learning, because it was much better to do it like most people – with time and practice. I was told “You will forget it as quickly as you’ve learnt it”. So you see, there was always something wrong with me, learning TOO quickly, even though I was a very good student throughout school, college and university. Not exceptional, because I had so many friendships and hobbies (and a night job while studying) that took up much time. And the concept of “giftedness” did not even exist when (and where) I grew up. There were just “normal” kids, those who needed help in school and those who did not. So I never had to worry about being treated as “gifted”. And yet, when I moved to Switzerland at the age of 30, I had to build a wall of perfectionism around me, because as a foreigner, one is not allowed to “fail” nor to show any signs of “weakness”. I was just supposed to accept humiliation, shitjobs and lack of respect, and live up to the standards of others without any comments, fearing to hear “If you’re not satisfied, why don’t you just go home?”.
    So I believe each of us move through life carrying different burdens related to us being RFMs, and I agree with you – therapy with the right person does wonders. Therapy with the wrong person only makes it worse, so be picky when you choose a therapist! I wish I had a therapist like you here, Paula!

    PS. I have not often experienced that kindness, compassion and sensitivity are valuable and make me lovable. Quite the contrary: most people simply become jealous or try to profit from my empathy for selfish reasons. So it is really important to know and respect myself, and set limits. That’s where therapy becomes important!

    1. pprober Avatar

      Thank you for sharing your experiences, Marina. I am so glad you are here and I’m sending big hugs.

  3. J'aime Wells Avatar
    J’aime Wells

    Paula, I just followed the link to “healthy perfectionism” and saw my writer self. <3 Thanks for that. I have been writing and rewriting novels, for years, then throwing them aside and starting new ones. LOL. I am sick of hearing “don’t be so hard on yourself,” and “have more confidence,” from well-intentioned people who think I should be “doing something” with these manuscripts (which none of them have read). Okay, so:
    1. Writing like this is joy to me. I’m teaching myself to write. I’m getting better with each draft of each project. Learning this way is like a tuition free MFA. LOL I do not want these sub-par books published with my name on them, until I know how to rewrite them the way I want them.
    2. I’m not in some kind of delusional bubble. I sent one manuscript to a professional editor (whom I chose carefully, and paid) for an objective check on how far I was from professional level. It came back with lots of positive and negative comments. I have a good sense of where I’m at as far as skill level, thanks.

    1. pprober Avatar

      Aha, J’aime! Writer, know thy self! 🙂

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