Therapist says perfectionism is driven by fear of failure, not high standards

The drive to be the best at everything we do, meaning not just good, but perfect, may sound like a positive trait, at least on the surface. 

It means we have high standards, and a drive for success, right? 

But Jody Baumstein, a clinical therapist with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Strong4Life program, says that perfectionism can have a crippling downside. 

"At the root is fear," Baumstein says. "So, a lot of times we think, 'Oh, well, it's just that drive for success, or this and that.'   No. The difference here is it's fear based."   

So, she says perfectionists will often procrastinate. 

"Sometimes you won't even start projects, if you don't think you're going to excel at it," Baumstein explains. "Or kids won't even start something in school, if they don't know for sure, they can nail it." 

And young perfectionists can grow into adults wary of taking personal and professional risks. 

"Because again, we're just scared," Baumstein says.  "We need to maintain that perfect image at all costs, and that might really take a hit and make us not really feel brave or capable of going after the things that we desire." 

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Students walk to classes at a Georgia high school. (FOX 5 Atlanta) (FOX 5 Atlanta)

Baumstein says the drive to be perfect can often impact women at work. 

"Men might look at a job description and say, 'Yeah, I can do some of that; I'll apply,'" she says. "And women, especially those who tend to have these perfectionistic traits, they might look through everything, but say, 'Well, I can't do that one thing. So, I'm not even going to put my name in the hat.'  Perfectionism is really driven by this external motivation of 'I need to maintain this perfect image out of fear. And we're really hard on ourselves, and it really does, it actually gets in the way of our success." 

But Baumstein says we are not born into the world needing to be perfect. 

"This is something that's learned, and the really good news for us is that it can be unlearned," Baumstein says.