Are You Addicted to Perfectionism? With 10 Signs and Journaling Prompts to Explore!

Woman wearing glasses pondering signs of perfectionism against mint background

Many of you know that I’m a ‘recovering’ Perfectionist (sometimes I still have to work at letting go). And for much of my life I was obsessed (sometimes literally) with perfectionism—getting things just right, whether it was work, my home, life or myself.

I have spent countless hours perfecting things when I could—and should—have been resting or enjoying life. I knew it wasn’t healthy but I just ‘couldn’t help it’.

Then, in 2010 I had a major health episode which forced me to look really hard at how I was living my life. I ended up in hospital for a week after emergency surgery (with 3 surgeons!). And it was realizing I could have died (and that 100 years ago I likely would have died), that gave me the determination to be gentler with myself. To stop working so hard, and to let go of perfection…

In this article about Perfectionism you’ll find:

Could perfectionism be an addiction?

The idea of perfectionism being an addiction came from a Dr. Gabor Maté talk I attended in 2012. He’s the best-selling author of several books such as When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, Scattered Minds (about ADHD) and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. He has devoted his life to helping people that society has ‘given up’ on. And part of that work involves educating people like you and me about the nature of addiction.

According to Dr. Maté anything can be an addiction when we use it to an unhealthy degree—whether it’s food, shopping, TV, work, exercise or the things more commonly associated with addiction like gambling, drugs and alcohol. There are also many shades and degrees of ‘addiction’, from mild compulsions right through to full-on self-destructive activities.

But what came to me during Dr Maté’s talk was that my need (compulsion) to perfect comes from the same root as addictions.

What makes something an addiction?

Addiction is characterized by a high state of craving that gets relieved when we do a specific activity (whatever that activity may be). This activity ‘fixes’ our craving or anxiety and we feel a temporary sense of peace or relief.

Whatever the addiction is, it helps us (temporarily) feel better, soothing us, reducing our discomfort/fear or whatever unpleasant feeling we are avoiding.

And studies have shown that the same brain chemicals are triggered and released whether the ‘addiction’ is alcohol, exercise, work—or perhaps perfecting things…

We may need to broaden our ideas of what addiction is…

To help you see how strong your need to perfect is, below are 10 signs you may be addicted to perfectionism.

As you read the 10 signs below, consider how many of these questions you would say “Yes” to?

Here are 10 Signs You May be Addicted to Perfectionism

1) Do you feel COMPELLED to perfect things?

This is when something inside of you literally can’t let go until it’s perfect—and like me, you may even recognize it’s unhealthy, but it’s just so hard to stop…

2) When things are not perfect, do you feel UNCOMFORTABLE or ANXIOUS?

When things are not exactly the way you want them does it make you really uncomfortable, afraid or anxious?

If you pay close attention, do you ever feel guilt (it should be better) or shame (I should be better)? Do you get angry with yourself or others when things are not perfect? Are you just itching to tweak it that little bit more?

3) Do you get STRESSED or IRRITABLE when something prevents you from perfecting?

How do you feel when something can’t be completed to your level of satisfaction?

Do you find yourself comfort-eating, get headaches, gnash your teeth, worry or unnecessarily stress about it? Do you take your frustration out on others?

4) Do you feel a sense of RELIEF, RELEASE or INNER PEACE once it’s perfected?

Once you have actually perfected or finished something to a high enough standard, do you feel relieved: Phew. Now, I can let go and relax… Or perhaps you feel a brief ‘high’—a sense of elation, release or freedom?

5) Does your need for perfection annoy or UPSET OTHERS?

Having a consistent negative impact on other people, but doing it anyway is a sign of an addiction…

Do you regularly irritate or upset other people with your perfecting behaviours—even if only temporarily?

6) Do you get a THRILL from the act of perfecting?

I call this ‘cheap thrills’! It feels really good! We get a buzz from it.

So, even though you may recognize it’s unhealthy (or other people just don’t get it), you get a ‘high’ from perfecting things.

7) When you’re stressed, do you feel the need to be perfect or ‘under control’ EVEN MORE than usual?

Perfecting things, or ourselves, is a great “go to” activity to bring a state of calm or control when we are stressed.

For example, I know that when I’m stressed, my first instinct is to calm myself by organizing and tidying. And its ‘evil twin’ activity is to obsess over perfecting something as a distraction from how I’m feeling.

8) Is the feeling of relief you get from perfecting TEMPORARY?

Do you find that you enjoy the perfection for a while. But then the next ‘thing’ to be perfected comes up and it all starts all over again?

9) Are you really good at giving reasons WHY this thing needs to be perfected?

I’m not saying your reasons are not real reasons—just that you’re really good at justifying the need for things to be perfect.

Ask yourself: Are these good reasons—or are you really just making excuses for your perfecting behaviour?

10) Are you a natural worrier?

Are you constantly wondering: What if this? What if that? Do you like to be in control—so that everything goes perfectly and you are safe?

So, how many of these perfectionism questions did you say “Yes” to?

Before my health crisis I would have said 8 definite “Yes”s and 2 partial “Yes”s.

These days, I am a mild “Yes” to 6 and a “Sometimes” to 2 of those questions. But I don’t have much of a compulsion to perfect anymore. I can let go if I need to. And if I can’t let go, I know that I need to stop and figure out what’s going on with myself.

In fact if I notice I am feeling particularly compelled to perfect something, it’s a sign that I need to stop and do some Fierce Kindness with myself: self-care from a strong and grounded place.

What about you? How many of the questions did you say “Yes” to?

Perfectionism is not all bad…

Perfectionism does have plus points like doing an amazing job that gets us admired. We can create great work. And we can be extremely successful as a direct result of our perfectionism.

So as far as ‘addictions’ or compulsions go—there are many much worse than perfecting! Only you will know how it’s impacting your experience of life and relationships. Only you know when your perfectionism has become a harmful habit.

Perfectionism usually also leads to us work much harder and longer than we need to. And it can be stressful and demoralising both to us, and those around us who can’t keep up.

And for me, that week long hospital stay was a wake-up call. While my ill health wasn’t caused by my perfectionism, I knew how hard I’d been working. I know that my need to perfect things and the stress I put myself under had made it a lot worse than it needed to be. I had worked harder and harder at the expense of my health…

Addictions are just solutions for our fear and discomfort

People don’t choose to be addicted…

Any addiction or compulsion—including perfectionism—is simply a way of coping with our fear and emotional discomfort.

People may choose the addictive activity, but the addiction itself is simply a solution.

So our addictions and compulsions will remain until we peek under the hood, look at our fears, unhealthy beliefs, unmet needs and take care of ourselves in better ways.

This is challenging work, especially when fear is in the mix—and kindness is key.

In fact what’s needed is Fierce Kindness.

Our perfectionism is ultimately a response to fear. So we need kindness for the part of our self that’s afraid. And we need the ‘fierce’ piece to add inner strength, determination and the courage to face our fears—and choose a different response.

Here are 7 Helpful Areas to Build Awareness Around Your Perfectionism Hand with Butterflies

Ponder these questions, or better yet, use them as journaling prompts!

  1. When are you most likely to feel the need to be perfect, or perfect things? Make a list!
    • What patterns do you notice?
    • What else do you notice?
  2. What is your positive intention behind the need to perfect?
    • What values are you meeting by perfecting things?
    • What do you believe about things that are perfect?
    • What are the positive outcomes of perfecting? What will “come out” if you (or your activities) are perfect?
  3. What is underneath the fear that drives you to perfect?
    • What might happen if you don’t perfect something—or aren’t perfect?
    • What does your ‘inner child’ or ‘inner critic’ think will happen if you don’t perfect something—or aren’t perfect?
    • What is the greatest fear that underlies your need to perfect?
  4. What are the signs that tell you your need to perfect has taken over?
    • Are there any specific actions or activities you perform?
    • What bodily discomforts do you notice or feel? Consider your 5 senses: What do you see (in your mind’s eye or imagination), feel physically, hear, taste, smell?
    • What specifically do you say to yourself? What are you telling yourself? (these are good pointers to underlying limiting beliefs)
  5. What other impacts does your perfecting have? Make a list.
    • Examples could include your relationships with friends/colleagues/partner/children, your health, sleep, efficiency at work, ability to relax, health etc.
  6. How does the need for perfection stop you enjoying the fullness of life?
    • What do you miss out on?
  7. Lastly, what would you like instead of the perfectionism?

You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. Brené Brown

IMPORTANT: Please be aware that you may need or want counselling or coaching to help you become aware of—and heal—your perfectionism. I certainly benefited from a counselor who helped me challenge my need for perfection, and encouraged me to ‘let go’ and see what would happen (nothing of course!).

Wrap-upFierce Kindness Logo

Asking questions like the journaling prompts above brought awareness to my perfectionism. I learned to recognize what was really going on (self-judgement, fear of rejection, not feeling good enough) and to be Fiercely Kind with myself.

And in the follow-up article How to Stop Being a Perfectionist, we take a look at what (specifically) you can do if you’re a perfectionist and would like to change that!

Remember, in the vast infinity of life, all is perfect, whole, and complete… and so are you. Louise Hay

Change the world. Start with you!

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Image of Woman pondering signs of perfectionism by Kraken Images


    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Dear Lynda, thank-you as always for your kind and thoughtful comment <3 Love Emma-Louise

  1. Rodney Shapiro

    Very helpful article, love it. As we all know, perfectionism can be a tricky addiction to spot, as it often masquerades as a positive trait. However, if you find yourself constantly striving for flawlessness at the expense of your well-being, it may be time to consider whether you’re addicted to perfectionism. I have a working colleague/friend, who was always striving for perfection in every aspect of her life. She would spend hours agonizing over minor details and beating herself up for any perceived imperfection. Eventually, she realized that her perfectionism was holding her back and causing her immense stress and anxiety. With the help of therapy, she was able to break free from her addiction to perfectionism and learn to accept herself and her imperfections. As mentioned by Emma, any addiction or compulsion—including perfectionism—is simply a way of coping with our fear and emotional discomfort. If you suspect that you or someone you know may be struggling with perfectionism, it’s important to seek help and support.

    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Hi Rodney, thank-you for your kind words, and your helpful additional comments/experience with a friend’s perfectionism. Warmly, Emma-Louise


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