Perfectionism is characterised by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting of excessively high (unreachable) standards of performance, accompanied by overly critical judgements of themselves and worry about how others judge them.
Perfectionism is different to ‘striving for excellence’, with the difference lying in the meaning given to mistakes. Many people see making mistakes as adaptive, to be expected, and an opportunity to either try harder or reflect on what can be changed. For a person who is perfectionistic, however, mistakes are not allowed – they would be a sign of personal weakness.
Perfectionism can be seen as a self-esteem issue based on emotional convictions about what one must do to be acceptable or otherwise “good enough” as a person. For perfectionistic people, it can often be very difficult to let go of their rigid high standards, even when pursuit of these standards has had (and continues to have) negative consequences. This is in part because perfectionism is “ego syntonic” – meaning being perfectionistic fits very much with a person’s concept of themselves and also that the person holds beliefs that being extremely perfectionistic is helpful.
What drives perfectionism?
Fear of failure drives perfectionism. The irony, however, is that perfectionism is one area in which the individual is guaranteed to fail. Perfectionists move endlessly toward unobtainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment. Not only does ongoing pressure to achieve unrealistic goals set a person up for disappointment, it means the person’s self-esteem is very much dependent on external things – e.g. “only as good as my last mark”, “only as hopeless as my last slip-up.” Anything short of perfect is often labelled by the perfectionist “stupid”, “horrific” and “lazy”. For example, “Oh, that speech I did was terrible – I completely stuffed up” versus “I did my best.” Alongside the significant mood disruptions that come with being perfectionistic, perfectionists are thus also extremely self-critical.
What are the difficulties and impacts associated with perfectionism?
As anything ‘bad’ or otherwise ‘not good enough’ is internalised and seen as a character flaw for a perfectionist, when something goes wrong the perfectionist takes full responsibility and is often unable to consider other causes apart from their own defectiveness. Over time this self-criticism and internalised pressure can lead to anxiety (worry) and depression. These negative emotions further drive attempts to not ‘fail’ again. Perfectionistic beliefs and behaviours are also seen in eating disorders and difficulties within relationships. The chronic stress related to perfectionism (e.g. “if something goes wrong, it’s my fault and up to me to fix it”) can also be linked to pain and sickness.
The relationships of perfectionists can also be fraught with insecurity – for some, they believe other people will like them only if they are perfect. They can also consider any ‘slip up’ in a friendship to be a sign of their badness or defectiveness. Perfectionists can therefore also be ‘people pleasers’ and socially anxious, which relates to unfulfilling relationships lacking in intimacy. Other perfectionists are not only very critical of themselves but of others as well, such that those around them feel like “nothing is good enough.”
Treatment for Perfectionism
Treatment for perfectionism can be approached from many therapeutic directions. Some examples of therapy include:
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (challenging of unhelpful thoughts and formation of alternative ways of coping and thinking)
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (changing the unhelpful beliefs of a perfectionist to a set of sustainable and balanced values for living)
Within these therapies, the client and therapist work together to:
- Reduce perfectionist behaviour: create workable strategies for reducing perfectionism behaviours and experiments to test beliefs and fears.
- Change perfectionist thinking: challenge and change the thoughts that keep perfectionism going, including strategies to identify and modify unhelpful (e.g. “all or nothing”) thinking. This also includes adjusting the unhelpful rules and assumptions that perpetuate the cycle of perfectionism.
- Examination of values (to re-evaluate the importance of achieving): Examine the over-value of achieving and the unrelenting standards before developing strategies to create a more balanced life.
In sum, the aim of therapy is to create sustainable resilience, which enables the person to keep forward in the face of knock-backs (not ‘failures’) that are part of life.
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for perfectionism, or to book an appointment with one of our clinical psychologists who provides treatment in this area, please email or call the clinic on 02 9438 2511.