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The Perfectionist’s Mask: Healing The Person Beneath

Updated: Mar 28

Girl holding a white mask over her face

For this month’s blog I’ve been inspired to write about perfectionism, because it's something that so many of my clients struggle with. Having personally struggled with healing my own perfectionist traits, I know it's a difficult pattern to acknowledge, release and transform. Today I am proud to call myself a ‘recovering perfectionist’ because I’ve done a lot of work on myself and come a long, long way. In this blog I share some of what I've learned on my healing journey in the hopes that it will help others. 

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is defined as: the tendency to demand of others, or of oneself, a flawless level of achievement or performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is accompanied by tendencies of overtly critical evaluations and not being satisfied with anything less than a state of perfection. 

Can perfectionism be a good thing?

On the surface, perfectionism can look like a good thing. When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, perfectionism was viewed as a desirable attribute. I remember people boasting about being a perfectionist and talking about it as if it was some kind of superpower. Perfectionistic thinking was reinforced by my school, church, community, by magazines, television, films, the fashion and beauty industries, which I became very involved with in my careers, so it was no wonder I grew into a perfectionist. 

But as I’ve discovered through my recovery and research, perfectionism is not what I thought it was. It is a trickster that fooled me into thinking it was a valuable trait for getting ahead in life. It was a mask I was subconsciously using to hide the uncomfortable truth of how I felt underneath. But instead of helping me it was hindering me because it made me frustrated, exhausted, sick and miserable. 

High achievers are not the same as perfectionists

Perfectionists and high achievers are often closely linked and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. However, there are some key differences between being a high achiever and a perfectionist. 

  1. Both high achievers and perfectionists work hard to achieve lofty goals, but while a high achiever can be satisfied with doing a great job (even if their goals aren’t completely met) a perfectionist will accept nothing less than perfection. ‘Almost perfect’ is seen as a failure.

  2. High achievers take pride in their accomplishments and tend to be supportive of others, but perfectionists tend to be more critical and judgemental of themselves and others and will often hone in on imperfections and have trouble seeing anything else. 

  3. High achievers are more inclined to feel magnetically pulled toward their goals by a passion or desire, whereas perfectionists tend to be pushed or driven by fears.

  4. High achievers can enjoy the process of chasing a goal as much or more than the actual reaching of the goal itself, whereas perfectionists tend to be so concerned with reaching their goal that they can’t enjoy the process. 

  5. High achievers can enjoy the fun of going a little further once their goals are reached, whereas perfectionists tend to have unrealistic goals and standards to begin with. Because of this, perfectionists often reject success because they feel that their actions are never good enough to rise to this level of achievement.

  6. High achievers can bounce back fairly easily from disappointment, whereas perfectionists tend to ruminate and struggle to move on and may beat themselves up and wallow in negative thoughts when things don't work out as planned. 

  7. Perfectionists have a greater fear of failure than high achievers, because they place so much emphasis on perfect results, which may lead to ‘perfection paralysis.’

  8. High achievers can see criticism as valuable information that will help improve their future performance, whereas perfectionists will often respond defensively to constructive criticism.

  9. High achievers tend to have higher levels of self-esteem than perfectionists. Due to their rigidity, critical nature and judgmental tendencies, perfectionists can become lonely or isolated which can lead to even lower self-esteem.

  10. Perfectionists also tend to be less happy than high achievers and have higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of psychological well-being.

How is perfectionism defined today?

Perfectionism is now clinically recognised as a personality disorder, which is a mental health condition that involves long-lasting, all-encompassing, disruptive patterns of thinking, behaviour, mood and relating to others. These patterns cause a person significant distress and/or impair their ability to function. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the standard reference publication for recognised mental illnesses, organises personality disorders into 10 categories, and those 10 into 3 sub categories; A, B and C personality disorders. (NB: It is possible to have mixed symptoms of more than one personality disorder.)

Perfectionism fits within the subcategory of C personality disorders, which involve severe anxiety and fear. Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is one of the disorders within this category. 

What are the symptoms of OCPD?

At a glance, people with OCPD usually appear confident, organised and high-achieving. Their exacting standards may even benefit them in certain jobs. However, their extensive preoccupation with order, perfectionism, control and specific ways of doing things, inability to compromise or change their behaviours usually negatively affects their relationships.

A person with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) may:

  • Be preoccupied with and insist on details, rules, lists, order and organisation.

  • Have perfectionism that interferes with completing tasks.

  • Have excessive devotion to work and productivity. This results in neglecting hobbies and spending less time with loved ones.

  • Consistently put off self-care and recreational activities to make their work flawless.

  • Have excessive doubt and indecisiveness.

  • Use extreme caution to avoid what they perceive to be failure.

  • Be rigid and stubborn in their beliefs and ways of doing things.

  • Be unwilling to compromise.

  • Have difficulty working with others or delegating tasks unless they agree to do things exactly as the person wants.

  • Frequently become overly fixated on a single idea, task or belief.

  • Perceive everything as ‘black or white’ (All or nothing thinking.)

  • Have difficulty coping with criticism.

  • Over-focus on flaws in other people.

  • Stress over the quality of even routine tasks.

  • Check and recheck their work for mistakes even when they can no longer find anything to correct.

  • Expect negative feedback even when they have exceeded the expectations of others.

  • Overperform, often realising later that they did not need to do as much work as they did.

  • Need to get everything right the first time.

  • Tend to feel overly responsible for others, especially following negative outcomes and events. (Responsibility hoarding.)

  • Be unwilling to throw out broken or worthless objects, even if they have no sentimental value. (Hoarding.)

What's the difference between OCPD and OCD?

Even though they sound similar, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are different conditions. OCD is an anxiety disorder in which you have frequent unwanted and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that cause you to perform repetitive behaviours (compulsions).

Examples of compulsions include flipping a light switch a certain number of times or repeatedly washing your hands. People with OCD usually are aware that the condition is causing their behaviour and accept that they need professional help to treat it. People with OCPD usually have little, if any, self-awareness of their behaviours.

The true cost of perfectionism

We know from clinician's case reports that perfectionism is linked to a range of psychological difficulties such as:

  • Chronic stress, anxiety and depression

  • Overdoing & exhaustion

  • Anger, frustration & resentment

  • Perfection paralysis

  • Lack of full satisfaction in life

  • Living in a self-made prison

  • Anorexia

  • Bulimia

  • Suidice ideation

  • Hoarding

How are perfectionists created?

Symptoms of OCPD usually begin by early adulthood. Many factors can affect a person's chances of having a perfectionist personality.

Some of the main causes of perfectionism include:

  • A fear of judgement or disapproval from others

  • Early childhood experiences, such as having parents with unrealistically high or low expectations

  • Poor self-esteem

  • Feelings of inadequacy

  • A need to feel safe and in control

  • Tying self-worth to achievements

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)

C-PTSD and perfectionism often occur together. Typical PTSD can arise after a traumatic episode, and is generally related to a single traumatic event. Complex PTSD, on the other hand, is related to a series of traumatic events over time or one prolonged event. 

What drives someone with C-PTSD towards clinically significant perfectionism? Generally speaking, perfectionism becomes clinically significant when it results in an excessive or unrealistic need to perform to exceedingly high, self-imposed standards. The drive for perfection is so strong that it can interfere with work, education or relationships. For individuals with C-PTSD, the need for absolute excellence can become a means of dealing with fear and anxiety created by ongoing trauma.

The three core elements of perfectionism

  1. Self-oriented. The irrational desire to be perfect. “I strive to be as perfect as I can be.”

  2. Socially prescribed. The sense that the social environment expects is excessively demanding. “I feel that others are too demanding of me.” 

  3. Other-oriented. The imposition of unrealistic standards on other people. “If I ask someone to do something for me, I expect it to be done perfectly.”

A recent large scale international clinical study showed that all three elements of perfectionism have increased over time, but the element that is by far the most problematic by far is socially prescribed perfectionism, because it has a largest correlation with mental illness. 

Socially prescribed perfectionists feel an unrelenting need to meet the expectations of other people, and even if they meet yesterday's expectations, they then raise the bar on themselves to an even higher degree. Because these people believe the better they do, the better they are expected to do. This breeds a profound sense of helplessness and hopelessness. 

Perfectionism is on the increase

Over the last 25 years, clinicians have seen perfectionism rise at an alarming rate.

Social psychologist Thomas Curran (see his TEDtalk link below) says that to Gen Zers, who are heavily influenced by the visual culture of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, the appearance of perfection is far more important than the reality. Curran and associates have used their study data to model future projections and the results were alarming. It showed that by 2050, 1 in 3 young people will report clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism.


Perfectionism and AI

I believe that because of the times we are living in, there is probably a perfectionist in all of us. How we manage our inner perfectionist will become more challenging the more we use AI technology to do things for us, especially in areas like social media and marketing. In my view, one of the biggest potential dangers that AI represents to humans is not them nuking us, it's AI’s potential to damage our self-worth and crush the human spirit through the manipulation of social media and marketing. AI is a tool that could easily be weaponised to use our own human consciousness against us, to control and manipulate us. Some might argue that’s already happening. 

“There is something fundamentally inhuman about limitless perfection.” - Thomas Curran.

Perfectionism in our energy field

Perfectionism typically shows up as energy tangles on the right hand side of our body and energy field. Physical symptoms tend to show up around the neck, shoulders and joints, limited our range of flexibility (reflecting the perfectionist's rigid way of thinking). Injuries almost always happen on the side where energy is tangled and stuck the most, so it's no surprise that I see a lot of clients with perfectionistic tendencies who have injuries on the right side. Why the right side? This is where human beings tend to file the memories and emotions relating to pushing themselves too hard trying to prove their self worth to themselves or others. 

Other ways perfectionism manifests in the human energy field is through the subconscious creation of defensive mechanisms, which we call ‘heart walls’ or ‘heart shields’. These energetic constructs act as barriers to protect us from uncomfortable feelings of being vulnerable, unaccepted, criticised, attacked or powerless. While heart walls and shields serve the purpose of making us feel safer, they also restrict the flow of energy around the chest. In chronic cases I often see perfectionism manifesting as breast cancer and heart attacks. Why? The heart is our emotional centre and the breasts represent our desire to please and nurture others (sexual attraction and breastfeeding) in order to increase our self worth. 

Transforming perfectionism

Identifying and transforming all the non-beneficial patterns of perfectionism is a complex process, because it's such a pervasive illness, unfortunately there is no quick fix. Healing and recovery requires time, patience and a multi-pronged approach. Here are some healing pathways ways to help in your recovery...

Pulling out weeds from their roots

Like a noxious weed, perfectionism works its way into every aspect of our lives and seems resistant to anything that doesn’t nourish it. But there are ways to stop it from totally invading and taking over the farm. I found it helpful to trace each element of perfectionism back to its roots, which involved going back to my early childhood. Understanding how negative behaviours get started can help us know how to dismantle them. By working through the painful feelings beneath perfectionism I was able to release them. The more I did this, the less power perfectionism had over me. 

Evaluating core identity issues

When I started the healing and recovery process I was shocked by how much perfectionism had taken over my identity and how much I had to fight it to take my identity back. Like breaking up with an abusive ex, having a clear vision of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live without perfectionism in my life was helpful. 

Energy Therapy

Doing Biofield Tuning sessions on myself and receiving them from others has been integral in my healing journey. They have helped me locate and transform problem areas in my energy field associated with perfectionism, for example dismantling the heart wall that contributed to my heart attack.

Fostering inner compassion

Perfectionists are typically bright, ambitious, conscientious and hardworking, so they have those positive traits working to their advantage. By using those qualities to increase self compassion, perfectionists can find ways to go easier on themselves and find more peace and contentment.

Some of the ways I do this is by:

  • Making my daily ‘to do’ short and manageable instead of long and ambitious

  • Taking regular breaks instead of pushing myself to keep going until I finish a task 

  • Making sure I listen to my body and honour my need for food, hydration and rest

  • Not beating myself up if I make mistakes, but learning from them instead

  • Slowing down and enjoying the journey instead of being in a hurry to finish projects and reach my goals

  • Celebrating my accomplishments

  • Transforming unwanted emotions into love, gratitude and compassion by doing my Heart/Brain Coherence Meditation

Getting off Social Media

When my iPhone app told me how much time I was spending on social media I was really shocked (and embarrassed) because I knew it wasn’t good for my mental health. I made the decision to change how I spent this time, so instead of scrolling, I read books. My mental health and sleep improved immediately because I stopped comparing myself to others and my mind wasn’t being overly stimulated and stressed. 

Mother Nature’s Nurture

Creating and sustaining a garden has been (and continues to be) the best therapy I have ever experienced. Nature is our constant reminder that everything needs balance in order to be sustainable, survive and thrive. I love to just sit still in my garden and let the feelings of gratitude and contentment wash over me as I appreciate all the sights, smells, textures, and colours all around me. It's sheer bliss!


Parents can help their children by supporting them unconditionally when they have tried and failed, and by resisting the urge to helicopter parent. There is a lot of anxiety communicated when parents take on their children's successes and failures as their own.  

The perfectionist paradox

One of the ways perfectionism actually promotes failure is by trying to succeed at all costs. We are much more likely to experience illness when we become too focused on our goals and don’t listen to our bodies. By not giving ourselves permission to fail, we inevitably push our bodies beyond their limitations, leaving them no choice but to rebel against us in order to get our attention. We need to give ourselves the option to fail, so that we stop when our bodies say “enough.” Remember that your body is your best friend and ally and like every relationship it requires regular maintenance. 

Reframing success

I remember a time when my definition of success was measured in material wealth. That quickly changed after my health crisis when I realised my health was the most valuable thing I had and would ever have. We can help broaden the narrow way society measures success by looking at levels of health, wisdom and experience instead of analytics spreadsheets and profit margins.

Celebrate the joys and beauty of imperfection 

Embracing imperfection can bring a sense of freedom and joy to our lives. It allows us to let go of the pressure to be perfect and instead, focus on self-improvement and personal growth. It also helps us to be more compassionate and understanding towards others. 

One way to embrace imperfection is to focus on progress rather than perfection. Keeping a record of your progress will help you to have a deeper appreciation of your journey and how far you have come. 

Embracing imperfection can help us to appreciate the beauty in the world around us. It’s these imperfections that make us who we are and life interesting and unique. One of the secrets of the longest living, happiest and healthiest people in the world is the philosophy of Wabi Sabi - which means perfect imperfection in Japanese. 

Thanks for reading my blog. If you enjoyed it please know in the comments or by giving it a heart.

Imperfectly Yours,


Cover Image Credit:

Axel Bueckert.


Thomas Curran's TEDtalk

Copyright © 2024 Vanessa Wood - Energy Therapy

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