What is Perfectionism?
Many individuals perceive perfectionism as attempting to “be perfect” or acting in a “perfect way”. Perfectionism is defined as striving for unrelenting high standards for self or for others, basing our self-worth on the ability to strive and achieve these high standards, as well as persevering these high standards despite what it may be costing you.
These patterns can come up in one or more areas of life including family relationships, school, work, hobbies or interests, and general pursuit for future goals. It can also relate to different behaviors such as tidiness, handwriting, physical appearance, or physical health. Despite the area, it can create impairment and distress which can be important to target to improve patterns.
Is Perfectionism Costing You?
Very often we hear from individuals that perfectionism isn’t a “bad thing,” and many beneficial things come from setting these standards including being able to achieve, do things well, feel special, or be prepared and ready for anything. There is a difference between helpful goal setting to achieve milestones and constant distress in striving for perfection. An important question to ask yourself is “what are these patterns costing me?”
For example, is the time that I have spent trying to achieve perfection worth it? Common mental health concerns associated with perfectionism include social anxiety, procrastination, test anxiety, generalized anxiety, depression, body image issues, anger, decision making issues, or performance anxiety. Perfectionism effects many areas including time, feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and a loss of general sense of happiness.
These unrelenting high standards could likely create a feeling of self-defeat and hopelessness as it gives us little chance to feel “good enough” if we are unable to meet these standards.
Brene Brown has done extensive research and written on the impact of perfectionism and how it leads to shame. She states:
“Perfectionism is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.” -Brene Brown
What Maintains Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is maintained by ineffective thinking and behaving patterns. Thinking patterns with perfectionism tend to be faulty and rigid beliefs of self and abilities. Pair these thoughts with behaviors that continue to maintain perfectionism and it makes it a difficult cycle to break.
Thinking patterns related to perfectionism include many rigid or distorted thinking patterns. A few include: all or nothing thinking (i.e., if I can’t do it right, I won’t do it at all), catastrophic thinking (i.e., if I turn this in late, I’ll fail), and should/shouldn’t thinking (i.e., I should be more competent, I shouldn’t take this long on a task). These thoughts in turn affect behaviors.
Individuals respond to these standards with behaviors of avoidance or acting in a way to confirm and meet these unrelenting expectations. Some examples include avoiding school or work tasks, avoiding social functions, or school refusal. Ways individuals act to confirm standards include reassurance seeking with loved ones, checking or rechecking tasks/assignments, over-preparing, spending too much time on tasks, and overcompensating in areas of life with high standards.
Strategies to Reduce Perfectionism
If you are noticing perfectionistic patterns, it is imperative to increase awareness of how perfectionism is expressed, what areas of life these standards are affecting, and to target both thinking and behavior patterns where it is present. Some interventions include:
Exposure and Response prevention (ERP): The goal of ERP would be to help the individual learn how to do or perform in a good enough manner by helping individuals face fears of not meeting unrelenting expectations and by reducing behaviors that maintain perfectionism such as avoidance, overpreparing, checking, reassurance seeking etc. Example exposures may be to reduce the amount of time it takes to do an assignment or send a work email, to complete an assignment with a mistake or send an email with a typo. It may be to learn how to approach work if the individual is avoiding schoolwork or work.
Thought challenging: The goal of thought challenging would be to help individuals identify and challenge stuck and rigid thinking related to perfectionism to create flexibility.
Improve self-talk related to abilities, effort, and performance that are more objective rather than critical.
Practice mindfulness to present moment: The goal of mindfulness is to practice staying in the present moment without judgment. The constant fear of how our performance and abilities will be perceived, can take us out of the present moment and away from the task.
70% rule: Perfectionism strives for above and beyond 100% and by setting lowered expectations of 70%, individuals can practice tolerating a “good is good enough” mindset and performance.
If you or someone you love is struggling with perfectionism, and it is interfering with your/their life, the therapists at The OCD & Anxiety Center can help. We have years of experience treating kids, teens, and adults who struggle with perfectionism in many areas including school, work, sports, eating, parenting relationships etc. Feel free to reach out to us at (630) 522-3124.
Stephanie Pruefer, LCPC, CADC is a licensed therapist at The OCD & Anxiety Center. The Center is located in two suburbs outside of Chicago. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy for anxiety, OCD, and anxiety-related disorders. She is comfortable working with children and adults and is able to provide treatment both in the office and outside of the office, wherever anxiety happens.