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

Sign #5: You can’t concentrate if your surroundings aren’t clean.

In many people’s experience, it’s true that outer order equals inner calm. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being neat and organized, but it can also a hidden sign of perfectionism. Preferring outer order is fine if it’s not getting in your way, but check for these three things:

  • Does clearing clutter, cleaning, and organizing takes so much time and energy it leaves you unable to do what you’re supposed to be doing?
  • Are you unable to transition away from cleaning, making you chronically late or stressed?
  • Or, is following your partner around with a vacuum or criticism straining your relationship?

Sign #6. You procrastinate.

Procrastination doesn’t look like perfectionism on the surface. Instead, it often looks like laziness or distractibility. But if you’re worried there’s no way you can meet your own standards or that you’ll make the wrong decision and later regret it, it’s understandable that you put off writing that term paper, moving forward on home renovations, or settling on a vacation destination.

Sign #7: You do one of two things when it comes to decision-making.

These two decision-making methods appear totally different, but both are rooted in perfectionism.

The first is taking a long time to make a decision because you worry it won’t be right. You stand in your closet trying to decide what to wear while your whole family is waiting in the car, or you’re still staring at the menu while the waiter glances at his watch. You hate Costco and IKEA because too many choices make you feel paralyzed.

The second method is that you are very decisive because you know the “right” way. You automatically hire the “best” contractor, go to the “best” hairstylist, and only get croissants at the “best” bakery. If someone offers to bring a dish to supper, you send them a recipe or tell them exactly where to pick up the ingredients.

Sign #8: You can’t delegate.

It’s better just to do it yourself.  If someone else does it, things never turn out the way you want and you’d have to redo it anyway. When you do it yourself, things get done to your high standards, but as a result, everything takes longer and you’re exhausted from taking on so much.

Sign #9: You hate waste.

You can’t bear to waste time, food, money, or energy.

You can’t bear to waste time, food, money, or energy. Walking away from sunk costs or abandoning a project makes you feel queasy—you’d rather fight through and make it right. A full fridge makes you anxious because so much food has the potential to go to waste. You can’t bear to leave miles or points on the table, even if it means ending up with a rewards subscription for socks (which is a thing, apparently). More seriously, you may even stay in a bad relationship because of all the time and energy you’ve already invested.

So what should you do if you said, “That’s me!” to any of the 9 signs? Is this a problem? Indeed, what’s so bad about being organized, hardworking, and looking fabulous all the time?

Well, since you asked, here’s the line: Perfectionism works against you when your high standards and hard work are driven by fear.  

It’s fine to work hard and aim high when you love what you’re doing and want it to be the best it can be. But it’s another thing to become paralyzed or consumed due to a fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, fear of being judged or rejected, or fear that you can’t compensate enough for your inherent inadequacies.

For me, making lists and being detail-oriented works well—it makes me efficient and able to balance a dozen different hats.

But perfectionism trips me up, too. I don’t like to tell anyone I’m working on something until it’s done or nearly done, so I miss out on feedback that, ironically, could have made it better. I’m still learning how to delegate and have a history of being overly picky, but I’m getting better at letting things go.

For you, if you think your life might be better if you loosened your grip, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Some aspects of your perfectionism are likely propelling you forward. Keep those. But you can work on the places perfectionism is holding you back. (And maybe even resist making them into a list). 

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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.