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Introverts and Perfectionism: How Far Will You Go to Avoid Criticism?

woman on beach ballet dancer

Photo: ABTofficial via Instagram

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 it 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.

Perfectionism in introverts

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 makes a difference

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.”

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.”

 

*This piece was originally published on introvertdear.com. It is republished here with permission from the author, Jenn Granneman.

Jenn Granneman introvert dear

Jenn Granneman is an introvert, a highly sensitive person, and an INFJ personality type who has struggled with why she was different from other people. Now she believes introverts and highly sensitive people can lead happy and fulfilling lives when they feel comfortable in their own skin. Jenn wants to change the world by helping people realize that introversion and high sensitivity are acceptable, normal ways of being. She is the founder of IntrovertDear.com, a community and blog for introverts.

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14 Comments

  1. Morena April 20, 2016 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    People think I’m a perfectionist because I love a clean home. Growing up, my family didn’t have much and when I left home, I just wanted a better life for myself and since the people I know are still stuck where they are. They claim I’m not ‘real’ anymore, because I don’t want to live in a bad area or I don’t want to be around their mess. I don’t like a disorganized home or a home that looks like a bomb hit it. My own sister said I changed after my mom passed and because I moved to a different state. as if we didn’t grow up the same and have the same experiences. But she is still where she is and refuses to try harder. Whats wrong with being in a clean environment?? Or living somewhere nice.

    Whats wrong with evolving. Even when I’m quiet people say I think I’m perfect and I’m not. I’m going through a lot right now and yet people think, I think I’m perfect and I’m a sweet person. We all have our pet peeves and mines is dishes in the sink and clutter. I like a clean home because my upbringing was horrible. When I carry toiletries, like one of my friends said to me, you have wipes in your bag? because I wiped her nieces face and hands. No one else did.The little girl had a runny nose and food on her hands and she was about to touch me, so I wiped her face and hands and her mom left her like that. but these are things I carry in my bag and just by that, people come out of their mouth and say I’m perfect, because I like to be clean. But they are not.

    When we didn’t have much or even a home, my mom never made us look like it. In my opinion, people have the wrong misconception of what it means to be ‘perfect’ because I’m nowhere near that. I don’t smoke, drink or party, I’m quiet, I like to stay home, read write, reflect, listen to music and to them, I’m not real enough and that I’m perfect or uppity. Because I don’t have an edge to me, because of how they are. I like people to respect my home. Thats not being perfect, lol.

    • Brenda Knowles April 23, 2016 at 7:19 am - Reply

      You keep on being you Morena. It’s my belief that if you treat others well and do your best to grow into the person you are meant to be then you’re on a good path.

  2. Girlady April 9, 2016 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    Besides being a HSP, my biggest INFJ is my fear of failure. I just can’t stand the idea of not meeting the expectations set for me, or making people’s job harder due my mistakes. There are certain things that I delay or avoid because I’m not sure I’ll make it “the right way”, opportunities get lost because “I’m not ready yet” and so on. Yeah I know that you grow and learn by failing, but for me it’s never just a mistake: it’s also all the possible consequences, how I could’ve avoid it, the rumination, feeling like I disappointed everyone…

    • Brenda Knowles April 13, 2016 at 11:48 am - Reply

      Yep, I hear you. I have those INFJ traits too. I also hesitate to do things, even help people, because I’m afraid I won’t do it the ‘right way’. Simple things like loading dishes into someone else’s dishwasher. I know everyone has their own way of doing it.;) I’m working on a the theory of ‘good enough’. Sometimes we have to leap when it’s not perfect but good enough. Thanks for sharing your experience Girlady.

  3. Samantha April 9, 2016 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    My mom is an ISFP – and she is the type to get the job done, but she often does inject a bit of perfectionism into it, usually meaning she does a much better job than anyone else does. I, on the other hand, am an INTP, and although I lean less toward perfectionism in most things, when it comes to writing, for example, it can get tough thinking whatever I’m doing isn’t good enough.

    I also have a hard time taking criticism from people I really care about, because it feels like a personal affront rather than a constructive suggestion. I am working on changing my viewpoint on it, but in some things it’s been pretty difficult. I’m also extremely opinionated, so if I think someone else is wrong and they try to criticize what I’m doing I can get very upset as well. However, I think part of not enjoying criticism is that I’m trying to iterate myself – I know I’m not “done” yet, so to speak, so receiving criticism feels bad when I know whatever I’m working on (whether it’s a skill, etc.) is not done yet.

    • Brenda Knowles April 13, 2016 at 11:45 am - Reply

      Thanks for your perspective Samantha. I always love getting INTP insight. My son is an INTP. Your sharing helps me understand him.:) Interesting point about receiving criticism when you’re not done yet.

  4. Matthew April 9, 2016 at 4:19 am - Reply

    A very interesting read with some great insights into what it really means and feels like to be a perfectionist. As a student psychologist, I found the point about ISTP’s and ISFP’s particularly intriguing (mostly because those were the two types that I was most closely associated with when I took a Myers-Briggs test). As with any theory, it can never hold true 100% of the time, so this is more a point of interest rather than a point of order: I am definitely a perfectionist despite being an ISFP. As I said, more for interest than searching for an argument.
    Thank you for this post, and for the work you do for introversion 🙂

    • Brenda Knowles April 10, 2016 at 5:59 pm - Reply

      I thought that was the most interesting point of the post – that ISTPs and ISFPs are slaves to perfectionism. I know ISFPs like you who are absolutely perfectionists. I can see where ISTPs might not feel the need to oblige the social contracts that require social perfectionism, but I’m open to ISTPs who want to tell me I’m wrong.:) Thanks for sharing your perspective Matthew.

  5. slj88 April 9, 2016 at 2:55 am - Reply

    I’m also an INFJ and possible a highly sensitive person and I’ve learned somethings in regards to perfection. I’ve had to put myself in the “I don’t care” mode, to prioritize what important and what’s not, because if I didn’t everything would be priority and I would always be in a perpetual state of anxiety. I also find I have to do the same thing when I’m training a person I know there not going to get things the way I do. Relationships are always a hard thing because I have to see potential before I reveal the smallest minute detail about myself and it’s a rarity to be with someone who matches my level.

    • Brenda Knowles April 10, 2016 at 3:24 pm - Reply

      Interesting comment about training others. You have to turn off perfection mode in order to have patience with others? How do you put yourself in “I don’t care mode”? Is it effective? I understand the importance of prioritizing. I feel like I am constantly triaging my relationships and work. Thanks for sharing your experience slj88.

  6. Catherine North April 8, 2016 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    Yet again, I completely relate to this. I’m an INFP perfectionist. I get upset if I think I’ve done the slightest thing wrong, even when no one else is really bothered about it. Yet I tend to be quite forgiving of other people’s mistakes. I absolutely love Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame, and it’s really helping me with overcoming anxiety. Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

    • Brenda Knowles April 10, 2016 at 3:21 pm - Reply

      I have to read more Brene Brown. She’s on my reading list.:) Are you a perfectionist mostly when it comes to being with people or does that perfectionism carry through into other areas like work? Thanks for sharing Catherine.:)

      • Catherine North April 10, 2016 at 4:16 pm - Reply

        A lot of it is about relationships with people, but it does carry over into work too. It’s why I don’t like to share rough drafts of writing or anything that feels unfinished for people to comment on. I have a writer friend who is an extrovert, and as soon as he gets a story idea, he tells everyone he meets and asks their opinion. He finds collaborating like this stimulating, whereas I find it terrifying. 🙂

        • Brenda Knowles April 13, 2016 at 11:51 am - Reply

          I don’t like sharing rough drafts either. Your extroverted friend’s style of collaborating sounds like it would take a lot of energy and then others would have expectations for my story. I guess it would depend on who I was collaborating with. It could be a meaningful experience if I could talk with others passionate about my topic. Thanks Catherine.

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