Having high standards has become more attractive, especially with accessibility from online resources and social media. I personally love to set new and challenging goals for myself as it helps me to not only evolve, but to stay happy. Novelty is known to improve our mood and striving to achieve your goals and ambitions can be extremely rewarding. But we all know perfectionism can also become problematic, leading to thinking errors (i.e., all-or-nothing) with negative consequences.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a type of cognitive schema, or lens through which we may perceive ourselves and others. Many high performers and high achievers have adapted perfectionistic tendencies in order to succeed to top levels. Perfectionists, however, tend to over accentuate flaws and mistakes, not only in themselves, but in others as well.
Perfectionists focus on mistakes, flaws, and imperfections, which leads to chronic dissatisfaction and feelings of disappointment. Because of this, they may get overly critical with themselves and others, making it difficult to feel fulfilled in relationships.
The core belief is that they literally need to be perfect, which comes from a deeper sense of inadequacy. It’s hard for perfectionists to accept their own and others’ shortcomings or limitations, so they set very high standards and unreasonable expectations of themselves and others.
Helpful vs. unhelpful perfectionism
Challenging and demanding standards can be valuable. Working hard to achieve hard goals gives us a sense of structure, motivation, and direction in life. This can be called ‘helpful’ perfectionism, and it can lead to great success. Learning to play an instrument well, for example, takes time, patience, dedication, and commitment. High standards and the pursuit of excellence can certainly help accomplished musicians reach this level of musical ability.
High standards become a problem when they are unrealistic, and when trying to achieve them makes things worse for you or other people. Believing that your self-worth depends upon achieving these standards – despite the problems they create – could mean you are struggling with ‘unhelpful perfectionism’ or ‘problematic striving’. In situations like these, perfectionism can cause a great deal of distress and hold you back in life.
Perfectionism exists on a spectrum. Helpful perfectionism can help you achieve excellence in your life, whereas unhelpful perfectionism can be a burden that damages your well-being.
You have high but achievable standards.
Striving to meet them has positive consequences.
Achieving standards fits around your life.
Your self-worth is based on many different things.
You have extremely high or unrealistic standards.
Striving to meet them has negative consequences.
Your life fits around achieving standards.
Your self-worth is based on meeting your standards.
Signs of unhelpful perfectionism or problematic striving include:
Judging your self-worth mainly in terms of your successes and achievements in life.
Pushing yourself to the point of feeling depressed, overwhelmed, or exhausted.
Workaholism and sacrificing interests, relationships, or rest to strive and achieve.
Having high standards which are difficult to achieve or maintain over time.
Avoiding or postponing tasks where there’s a risk you might fail.
Harshly criticizing yourself when you don’t meet your standards.
Fearing failure, or feeling like you always fail.
Discounting achievements you see as less than perfect.
Alcohol and substance dependency.
How you might think:
You constantly worry about whether you will meet your standards.
Criticize yourself for mistakes, for being unproductive, or for not meeting your goals.
Discount successes, positive feedback, or personal achievements that seem less-than-perfect (“That doesn’t count”, “They didn’t mean it”)
Tell yourself that there is always more you could achieve or improve upon.
Brood over errors, critical feedback, or flawed performance.
Push yourself to excel despite how bad it can make you feel (“I should, I must”).
How you might feel:
Stuck, frozen, uncertain how to proceed
Low or depressed at times
How you might act:
Check the quality of your work, your performance, or your progress towards goals repeatedly.
Spend an excessive amount of time completing tasks.
Make lengthy ‘to do’ lists or detailed schedules.
Compare your performance or accomplishments against other people’s.
Ask constantly for reassurance about the quality of your work or performance.
Postpone tasks you think might be very demanding or time-consuming.
What you might pay attention to:
What you haven’t achieved, rather than what you have achieved.
Mistakes, flaws, or potential errors in the things you do.
Other people’s progress, performance, and accomplishments compared to your own.
Ways you need to improve or things you should have done better.
Minor details that other people overlook.
Judgements and negative feedback about your performance from other people.
Our perspective (thoughts) about our standards influence the way we feel and how we respond to success and failure. If we feel like a goal is attainable and we are prepared for the challenge, we are more likely to feel motivated, excited, and energized (eustress). If we become overwhelmed by the challenge, we tend to become less enthusiastic, more distracted, and may even procrastinate or “freeze” from getting started on our goal (hyperstress).
Perfectionism’s effect on physical and mental health:
Having unrelenting standards affects us emotionally, mentally, and physically. If a person fails to achieve the perfection they want, they are more likely to experience distressing feelings such as shame, irritability, agitation, and anger. Perfectionists are also particularly at risk for experiencing PTSD symptomatology after a traumatic event because they typically feel responsible for negative outcomes and experiences.
Placing demands on oneself increases stress arousal in the body, activating a surge of stress hormones (i.e, cortisol, adrenaline). Chronically activating the stress response also increases inflammation in the body. These emotional and physiological responses, over time, can lead to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal conditions, and other medical conditions.
Even if we think we live a healthy lifestyle by eating well and exercising, stress hormones that are chronically activated leave us susceptible to many health issues.
What causes perfectionism?
Perfectionism does not have a single cause, but some circumstances may make you more likely to experience it.
Growing up in a perfectionistic environment, such as living with parents who are critical or in a culture with high expectations, can increase your risk of developing perfectionism.
Research suggests that early experiences can lead you to develop negative core beliefs (i.e., believe you are defective, or a bad person) and see perfectionism as a way to ‘solve’ or make up for these flaws.
Some personality traits appear to be related to perfectionism. If you tend to be very emotional (a trait called ‘neuroticism’) or organized (a trait called ‘conscientiousness’), you may be more likely to develop aspects of perfectionism.
Other emotional problems like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders may increase your chances of experiencing perfectionism. It is unclear how much perfectionism causes these problems or is a consequence of having them; it may work both ways.
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
How to manage perfectionism:
Look, if anyone knows about setting high standards, it’s me. I love to challenge myself and see what this mind and body is capable of. However, I am also clear about my goals being realistic and attainable. If you set unrealistic, over demanding standards for yourself, there is always a risk you won’t meet them. If you base your self-worth on achieving those standards, or if trying to meet them causes you a lot of trouble, you may be struggling with perfectionism.
Develop a sustainable model. Create a plan that helps you maintain your progress and avoid setbacks in the future. Plan and prepare small steps toward a larger goal to build confidence and increase the likelihood of small wins. For example, a solid plan with SMART goals accounts for attainable and realistic goal-setting.
Try different things just for fun. Finding new ways of feeling good about yourself aside from striving and achievement can be a great way to leverage our competitive resources for specific areas rather than trying to be good at everything.
Assess for cognitive distortions. Learn about things that contribute to perfectionism, such as intermediate beliefs and thinking errors that can drive it. (e.g., “The harder people work, the better they do in life”).
Practice self-compassion. Manage self talk by criticizing yourself less and learning how to treat yourself more fairly. Setting big goals is meant to be hard. No need to add suffering on top of inevitable pain. Self compassion is not self indulgent. Be kind to yourself!
Accept the journey. Success is never linear. Life is meant to be lived with grace and that includes allowing yourself to make mistakes and overcome difficult moments. Every successful person has learned to overcome, not avoid, defeat. Accepting the lows as much as the high provides opportunity for learning and makes the win that much sweeter!
Manage your expectations. As much as we all want it, not every goal will turn out to be a perfect win. There may be areas to growth that we overlook and expecting to win is walking a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Stay humble while working toward your goals!
How CBT can help
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) designed for perfectionism is the psychological treatment that has the strongest research support for treating perfectionism. There is some evidence that it can also help address problems that sometimes accompany it, such as disordered eating, narcissism, anxiety, and depression. CBT helps clients evaluate their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions using practical techniques and exercises for self-reflective learning.
Message me if you are interested in learning more and working collaboratively on your goals to manage perfectionism.
Do you set standards for yourself that are demanding and difficult to achieve? Do you feel anxious about not meeting your standards and end up postponing your tasks? Please share your thoughts and comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
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