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Self-critical perfectionism: “Why do I feel the need to be good at everything?”

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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Do you feel a need to be good at everything you put your mind to? You could be dealing with self-critical perfectionism – a trait which is especially common in women. 

I have always been a perfectionist.

It’s a part of myself I’ve had to learn to live with. From the days when I’d throw a tantrum because my handwriting wasn’t “neat enough,” to now, when I nearly gave up on exercising after my first run because I couldn’t go as far as I thought I could, my need to be good at everything has defined who I am. In my mind, not being good at something has always meant I have two options: give up, or berate myself until I get it right.

I’m all too aware that this way of thinking is incredibly toxic – over the years I’ve worked hard to try and loosen the grip my perfectionism has on my life. But still, no matter how hard I try to shake it, there’s always part of me that feels like I need to excel at everything I put my mind to. To my perfectionist side, success no longer exists on a spectrum: if I’m not succeeding, I’m automatically failing.

Of course, I know that’s not true. I know expecting to be good at something the first time you try it is absolutely ridiculous. I know ‘practise makes perfect’ and that hard work will help me to improve. But instead of putting my head down and seeing success as something to work towards, my first instinct is to be self-critical – to berate myself for my inability to be exceptional from the word ‘go’. 

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For a while, I’d always assumed this was just a ‘me problem’, and I was too embarrassed to talk about it with my friends. But as I’ve read more about the pressures put on women – how social media teaches us that success is the only thing worth sharing, how we’re supposed to transform our hobbies into money-making ‘side hustles’ and how being able to “juggle everything” from motherhood to an exceptional career is what makes a ‘modern woman’ – and spoken to my friends about them, I realised it’s hardly surprising that so many of us feel the need to excel in every area of our lives.

According to Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan, our need to be good at everything (and live up to the expectations and pressures of people around us) – a trait called “self-critical perfectionism” – is especially common in women.

A woman stressed at work
“Self-critical perfectionism exhibits itself as an intense desire to be good at everything combined with a heightened sensitivity to other people’s expectations and perceived criticisms if these are not met.”

“Self-critical perfectionism is a trait that exhibits itself as an intense desire to be good at everything (i.e. perfect) combined with a heightened sensitivity to other people’s expectations and perceived criticisms if these are not met,” Arroll explains. “This is then followed by an inner monologue of harsh self-rebuke and doubt over our ability to do anything at all. It’s a trait I believe is quite common – especially in women.”

She continues: “In terms of evolutionary psychology, this type of enhanced awareness to social threat would be more prevalent in women as their role has traditionally been to tend-and-befriend, to take care of others and keep the fabric of social life closely knit. Under this lens, striving for outwardly perfection makes sense, as the risk of rejection from our social group for perceived failures would, at one time, have been a matter of survival. In fact, a recent survey by Healthspan found that twice as many women worry about whether what they’re doing is good enough compared to men (30% vs 15%).”

What is particularly worrying is the amount of anxiety and stress many of us feel about whether our work is “good enough”; besides the fact that we’re obsessed with being good at everything, we’re also basing our self-worth on the opinions of other people and relying on external validation to feel good about ourselves. So how can we overcome this toxic way of thinking?

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“We should be mindful of this type of maladaptive trait as it is a unique vulnerability factor for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, so it is important to challenge these unhelpful thoughts,” Arroll explains. “Cognitive behavioural therapy is an evidence-based method to tackle self-critical perfectionism, and you can also try some simple tips to break this damaging thought pattern such as moving your goalpost away from ‘perfect’ to ‘good enough’.

“Then, increase awareness of all-or-nothing cognitions, characterised by words such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘nothing’ in addition to ‘perfect’, which maintains maladaptive perfection. Replace this language with kinder, less black and white terms such as ‘sometimes’, ‘ok’ and of course ‘good enough’. Kindness is key – you are, and always have been, good enough.”

Cath Bishop, Olympic medallist and author of the upcoming book The Long Win: The Search For A Better Way To Succeed, agrees that reflecting on the language we use and redefining our definition of “success” can be a helpful way to overcome some of this self-critical perfectionism.

A woman walking outside
Struggling with a need to be good at everything? It might be time to redefine your idea of success.

“If we are basing happiness on an external validation of what we do and achieving particular outcomes that we are not in control of, then we are setting ourselves on a path to unhappiness for sure,” she explains.

“It all depends on our definition of good – is it what people think? Or is it ok to assess things for ourselves and to create the criteria for success that has the most meaning for us? Maybe a good day is not one where we win, get top marks, hit our annual targets, but where we turn up with an open mindset, ready to learn from others, prepared to listen and see things from different points of view.”

For Bishop, taking what she terms the “long win approach” – where we prioritise growth and development over short term gains and success – can help us to gradually overcome the need to be good and excel at everything.      

The long-win approach

“To overcome our need to be good at everything, we need to redefine success and take a long-win approach through the three C’s: clarity, constant learning and connection.”

Clarity: “Firstly, developing clarity requires us to think about what really matters – not what others want us to do, or what our inbox is telling us to do, but what really feels meaningful over time for us. If we define success by much broader criteria and over the longer-term, then we start to connect our daily lives to something that is more motivating and inspiring than any short-term rewards. Clarity is emergent, it’s not something that we ever have 100% fixed, but develops as we go through our careers and lives. It’s as much about ‘how’ we go about things, as ‘what’ outcomes we may or may not achieve.”

Constant learning: “Secondly, a constant learning mindset helps us to focus on growth and development rather than judging ourselves by outcomes. We can’t all ‘win’ every interview we go to, every promotion round, but we can learn through good times and bad. When I was an Olympic rower, we would review every race with the same mindset, regardless of result. Whether I lost or won, there were always things I was doing well and things I needed to improve next time. Whether I was first or last, we always wanted to go faster next time, and so we learnt to get good at improving, which ultimately delivered the best results.”

Connection: “Thirdly, the prioritisation of connection helps to create cultures that are more easily innovative, collaborative and diverse. Overly competitive cultures can feel like they must be high performing, but often aren’t, and drive dysfunctional, even corrupt, behaviours and poor teamwork, which sits at the heart of most of what we do, personally and professionally.”

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At the end of the day, it’s clear that my need to be good at everything – and impulse to criticise myself when I’m not – isn’t a ‘me problem’ at all. It’s rare that we take the time to stop and analyse our thought patterns (that’s why therapy is so great, by the way) but when we do, it’s amazing to see just how much of our self-worth we allow to linger in the hands of other people.

As lockdown eases and we head back to work and “normality,” now could be the perfect chance to finally take control and admit that, despite what our brains might be telling us, we don’t actually have to be good at everything – after all, wouldn’t life be boring if everything was a piece of cake?

Cath Bishop, Olympic medallist, International Diplomat and Cambridge University Business Coach, is the author of The Long Win: The Search For A Better Way To Succeed which is out on 13th October, published by Practical Inspiration Publishing, priced £12.99.

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