Why Introverts Become Perfectionists (and How We Can Fight It)

Do you feel like what you do is never good enough? In school, did you procrastinate on turning in papers or projects because you wanted to get them just right? Do you worry a lot about disappointing others? If so, you might be a perfectionist like me.

I’m an introvert and INFJ personality type, and I’ve struggled with perfectionism my entire life. As a student, I mentally beat myself up if I got anything less than an “A” on a test. In a performance review at work, I ignored the five good things my boss said about me and focused solely on the one negative thing. As a beginning writer, if my writer’s group didn’t love my latest story, I felt ashamed and wanted to scrap the entire piece.

I wasn’t always aware of my perfectionism. I was exhausted and stressed all the time and didn’t know why. My life wasn’t moving forward because I was obsessed with getting everything “right.” I didn’t want anyone to have a reason to judge or criticize me, so I tried to be blamelessly perfect.

This made me wonder: what does perfectionism look like in introverts, and how can perfectionists like me be more balanced?

How Perfectionism Begins

My perfectionism began the moment I got my first homework assignment in kindergarten. I still remember agonizingly writing and rewriting the letters on my penmanship worksheet until they were perfect. I wanted my teacher to take one look at it and proclaim it was the best handwriting she’d ever seen.

She didn’t. In fact, she used a red pen to circle some letters that were off. I was crushed, but I swore to do better next time.

My story isn’t unusual. Experts believe perfectionism begins in childhood. Early in life, perfectionists start to believe that people value them based on how much they achieve or accomplish. Soon their self-esteem becomes tied to other people’s approval.

This is dangerous. According to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center, “This can leave you vulnerable and excessively sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In attempting to protect yourself from such criticism, you may decide that being perfect is your only defense.”

That’s exactly what happened to me.

When Perfectionism and Introversion Team Up

It’s not uncommon for introverts to be perfectionists. Introverts are prone to overthinking. Plus we enjoy concentrating deeply, working alone, and getting things just right.

But perfectionism isn’t exclusive to introverts—extroverts can be perfectionists too. It just tends to show up differently for both groups. Thea Orozco, creator of Introvertology and a personal coach, explained the difference:

“When it comes to decision-making, some of my extroverted clients put off making decisions and hope someone else will decide for them—so if it ends up not being perfect, it’s not their fault,” she told me. “My introverted perfectionist clients want to make the decisions themselves but spend countless hours trying to come up with the ‘best’ decision.”

The end result? Both take a long time to make an important decision or worse, they don’t make the decision at all.

Your Personality Type Shapes Your Perfectionism

Even among introverts, perfectionism shows up differently. According to Molly Owens, CEO of Truity, each of the introverted Myers-Briggs personality types experience perfectionism in different ways:

  • ISTJs and ISFJs are perfectionists in terms of being very precise and correct.
  • INTJs and INFJs are perfectionists in the sense that they have high standards and can always think of a way they could be doing things better.
  • INTPs and INFPs are perfectionists because they want to constantly revise and explore. They often love the process of iterating more than actually finishing something.

But there are two introverted personality types that probably don’t struggle with perfectionism—the ISTP and ISFP. Owens explained, “I think these types are so grounded and action-oriented, they just get the job done instead of trying to get it perfect.”

PH circle 2What’s your personality type? Knowing your personality can help you leverage your natural strengths. Take the free personality test from our partner Personality Hacker.

The Dangers of Perfectionism

Sure, perfectionism makes us aim for the stars. And there’s nothing wrong with having high standards. But interestingly, perfectionists aren’t necessarily high achievers. That means all our obsessive work doesn’t pay off.

If left unchecked, perfectionism can actually poison your health, mood, and relationships. Disturbingly, one study even found that self-described perfectionists have a 51 percent higher death rate than non-perfectionists.

Some other dangers of perfectionism:

  • Perfectionism is tied to workaholism, which can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and heart disease.
  • Because of the intense fear of failure and rejection, perfectionists may struggle to let themselves be exposed or vulnerable. This makes it hard for us to share our inner experiences with a partner. We think we always need to be in control of our emotions, and we avoid talking about personal fears, inadequacies, and disappointments.  This can harm both our relationships and ourselves.
  • Perfectionists do things in extremes. They struggle with black-and-white thinking. They’re a success one moment (when things go their way) and a failure the next (when they experience a setback). This wreaks havoc on their mood and self-esteem.
  • Perfectionists are less resilient than non-perfectionists, because they take every failure and criticism personally.
  • Perfectionism correlates strongly with depression and anxiety.

How to Fight Perfectionism

If you struggle with always having to do your best work, one way to fight this is to set goals about what you want to achieve before you begin a project, Owens explained. Then, when you find yourself obsessing over one aspect of your project, pause and ask yourself if you’ve met your goals yet. If what you’ve produced is up to the standards you set initially, tell yourself to be done.

If you haven’t met your goals, try taking a short break. Taking a step back helps you evaluate your work more objectively. It can give you the breakthrough you need to move forward.

Brené Brown is a researcher who studies perfectionism and wrote The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Her remedy for perfectionists? Practice authenticity and express vulnerability. Let others see you exactly as you are. If you’re a few minutes late to the meeting or the essay you’re turning in to your professor isn’t perfect, just own it. Don’t hide behind the defensive shield of false perfection.

“Authenticity is a practice and you choose it every day,” she explained, “sometimes every hour of every day.”

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Read this: 21 Undeniable Signs That You’re an Introvert