9 Hidden Signs of Perfectionism

Are you a perfectionist? Most perfectionists don’t identify with the label. But Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers nine signs that might make you come out of the (perfectly organized) perfectionist closet.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #159

While calling something “perfect” is the highest of compliments—a perfectly done steak, a perfect Olympic performance, the perfect prom dress—calling someone a perfectionist is anything but.

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Why? It implies a fussy control freak who can’t relax. Perfectionists have a reputation of being hard-driving. Uncompromising. Relentless. And often, it turns out, very successful. Steve Jobs was a notorious perfectionist. Martha Stewart calls herself a “maniacal perfectionist.” Serena Williams proudly wears the perfectionist label.

All three of these people—and likely some of the perfectionists you know (maybe even you)—have risen to the heights of their field, made themselves rich and famous, and have delivered great work. But not without cost.

It’s these costs—anger, stress, abrasiveness, being seen as picky, rigid, or over-controlling—that makes most people shun the perfectionist label.

As a result, perfectionists almost never claim to be perfectionists. And further, because the label is a misnomer, most perfectionists don’t even realize they’re perfectionists.

How is it a misnomer? Contrary to the name, most perfectionists aren’t driven by the pursuit of perfection, they’re driven by the avoidance of failure. Being a perfectionist isn’t about being perfect, it’s about never being good enough.

Should you call yourself a perfectionist? There are some common characteristics, like doing things well, thoroughly, or efficiently. Indeed, sweating the small stuff is an advantage when it comes to impressing the boss, turning out a restaurant-worthy dinner party, or organizing the garage with the intricacy of a game of Tetris.

But it can be a hindrance when you spend so much time tinkering that you never actually get a project done, get sucked so far into the details that you lose the forest for the trees, or insist that the two sides to every argument are your way and the wrong way.

But there are also lesser-known signs of perfectionism. For starters, here are 9 of them. Are you a *perfect* match? (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

Sign #1: You always look great.

You never seem to have a bad hair day; your outfit always looks pulled together. No chipped nail polish or two-day stubble for you, plus it’s not painful for others to look at you (every mother of a tween boy knows what I mean—”No, you cannot wear mid-calf socks and Adidas slides to Uncle Melvin’s funeral!”)

Now, you might be the type of perfectionist who doesn’t care what they look like—you might save your perfectionism for other domains. Steve Jobs reportedly wore a black turtleneck and Levi’s every day so he didn’t have to waste neurons on deciding what to wear.

On the other hand, carried to an extreme, being perfectionistic about appearance is a big risk factor for eating disorders. Anorexia is often lethal. And bulimia and binge eating are often signs of cracks in a perfectionistic facade—all the pressure you put on yourself has to escape at some point, in this case through a binge on decidedly imperfect foods.

Sign #2: You keep ideas and projects to yourself until they’re fully formed.

Unlike Saturday Night Live, you prefer not to broadcast your ideas or what you’re working on until they’re ready for prime time. The prospect of presenting something half-baked is as abhorrent as going out half-naked. In brainstorming sessions at work, you wonder how people can offer up such bad ideas without being embarrassed. You marvel not only at how they’re not afraid for their underdone ideas to fail, but how sometimes, they hit on something big. You wish you could spitball with them, but it just doesn’t feel safe.

Sign #3: Lists!

Lists and calendars and schedules, oh my! You are organized and efficient. The upside is that you get the most out of your time. You’re productive and get things done effectively and well—nothing wrong with that at all.

But sometimes productivity isn’t the goal. With an overly-rigid schedule or a laser focus on checking off to-dos, it can be hard to be flexible, to find time to spontaneously chit-chat, or to have those unscheduled run-ins and conversations that are not only fun, but deepen your relationships and spark creativity.

Sign #4: It’s tough to relax.

Or kick back, or relax, or let loose. Feeling restless and driven often gets mistaken for being a workaholic, but underneath is usually deep-seated perfectionism.  

If this is you, unstructured time feels wrong—there’s something else you could be doing. You resent the hours it takes to go for a hike, watch a movie, or play a softball game with your friends because it’s such a time and energy suck. You may leave your vacation time on the table because breaks interrupt your routine. And holidays are the best time to get stuff done because no one else is around to bother you.

Likewise, you’ve tried, but you just can’t meditate. You’re not sure if you’re doing it right, and that makes it stressful. Plus, just sitting there trying to be in the now makes you restless—it feels like you’re wasting time.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.