Spotlight on Perfectionism
Updated: Jul 4
What is it? What are its causes? What is its impact? How to Address? These are the questions this article will outline in detail.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait characterised by a tendency to set extremely high standards for oneself, often in various areas of one’s life. Perfectionists can be very self-critical when those standards are not met. Despite negative consequences of perfectionistic behaviours, perfectionists often continue to strive for high standards. They frequently judge their self-worth largely upon their achievements. Individuals can be perfectionists in one area of their lives or multiple areas of their lives. Here are examples of aspects of our lives where perfectionism may show:
· Work · Studies · Housework · Exercise/body weight and shape · Relationships
There may be habits that you adopt that you do not even realise are a function of your perfectionism, here are some examples:
· Seeking reassurance/over-relying upon external validation · Checking your work an excessive amount · Difficulties making decisions, perhaps spending an inordinate amount of time researching things and putting off decision making until the last minute · Procrastinating: putting off important tasks · Giving up easily · Providing lots of detail to others and/or going through things in lots of detail in one’s mind · Avoid situations where you perceive you may fail · Hoarding
Why Causes Perfectionism? The reasons why some people become perfectionists can be complex and multifaceted, but here are a few possible explanations:
1. Upbringing: Perfectionism can also be influenced by a person's upbringing. Here are some examples:
a) If a person grew up in a family where high achievement was valued and mistakes were not tolerated, they may have developed a perfectionistic mindset as a way of coping with the pressure to perform. b) If a child performs highly, for example, at school or in sports, they can receive praise which is a nice feeling. This becomes reinforcing, encouraging the same behaviour again in future to elicit the same pleasant feeling. Additionally, the child may feel others will have developed high expectations of them, expecting them to continue to perform to high levels leading to pressure to do so. c) If a child grows up in an abusive environment, perhaps they were frequently criticised, belittled, physically hit, this can lead to significant insecurities. A child may attempt to over-compensate for these insecurities by performing to high levels. They may strive for the recognition and praise they did not sufficiently receive whilst growing up
2. Environment: Cultural and societal factors can also contribute to perfectionism. In some cultures, perfectionism and achievement is highly valued, and even seen as a desirable, whereas committing time to self-compassion and relaxation is of low value. This can lead individuals to internalise these cultural and societal norms and feel pressure to live their lives in accordance to them.
3. Fear of Failure: Some people may become perfectionists because they have a deep-seated fear of failure. They believe that if they do not achieve perfection, they will be judged harshly or even rejected by others. As a result, they set impossibly high standards for themselves in an attempt to avoid this outcome.
4. Control: For some individuals perfectionism may be due to striving for control. Perhaps they experienced past difficulties where they lacked control. Striving for control by paying attention to detail may be driven by wanting to be prepared for all possible outcomes and a fear of something catastrophic happening if they were not to do so.
What is the Impact of Being a Perfectionist?
People may view being a perfectionist as positive for the following reasons:
1. Motivation: Perfectionists often have high standards for themselves and are motivated to work hard to achieve their goals. This can lead to great accomplishments and success in their chosen field.
2. Boost Self-Esteem: Being successful and the praise that may be received is a nice feeling and can help to boost our self-esteem.
3. Attention to detail: Perfectionists tend to have a keen eye for detail and are often meticulous in their work. This can be an asset in certain professions, such as science, engineering, or medicine, where accuracy is crucial.
4. High expectations: Having high expectations for oneself can help individuals push themselves to be their best and strive for excellence.
However, being a perfectionist often incurs several costs. Here are several negative impacts of being a perfectionist:
1. Procrastination: Perfectionists can sometimes procrastinate because they are afraid of not being able to complete a task perfectly. This can lead to missed deadlines, unfinished projects, and added stress.
2. Emotional Wellbeing: The constant pressure to be perfect can lead to feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. This can be a significant source of stress and can have negative impacts on mental health. Striving for high standards can further fuel low self-esteem due to the following:
a) Underlying negative thoughts about oneself can remain unaddressed which further maintains low self-esteem. For example, if one has a thought that if they do not perform to high levels they will fail and they will lose relationships, if one continues to strive for high standards they do not learn that if they were to relax this their fears will not materialise thus their fears remain unchallenged. b) If standards are set too high, they are not achievable so can often not be reached, leaving an individual to perceive they have failed as opposed to the standard simply being too high. c) If a high standard is achieved this is often attributed to “being lucky” or “anyone could do it” as opposed to their effort and skill. However, if the high standard is not met this is attributed to their lack of effort and skill.
3.. Burnout: Perfectionists may have a tendency to overwork themselves in order to meet their high standards and do not commit sufficient time to relaxation, which can lead to burnout, exhaustion, and physical health problems.
4. Impaired relationships: Perfectionism can make it difficult for individuals to form close relationships, as they may be critical of themselves and others. Insufficient time given to relationships can also occur as too much time is given to achievement in work etc. This can lead to isolation and social difficulties.
5. Performance Reduces: There can be a paradoxical effect, whilst striving for high standards sometimes produces good results, it can often lead to a decline in performance. This can be due to procrastinating, high stress levels, paying attention to detail to some things leaving little time for other important aspects of the task.
6. Catastrophic when Standards are Not Met: When high standards are not met, whether that be due to the individual or due to something outside of their control, this can be catastrophic for the individual. This can activate critical self-talk and damage their self-esteem. Whereas for others who have a more balanced life, if one aspect of their lives do not go well, although this can be difficult it is not deemed as catastrophic. The other valued areas of their lives act as a buffer somewhat.
How to Address Perfectionism?
If you are struggling with perfectionism, here are some strategies that may be helpful:
1. Challenge your thoughts: Perfectionists tend to have an "all or nothing" mindset, where anything less than perfect is seen as a failure. Challenge this type of thinking by reminding yourself that no one is perfect, and that mistakes and imperfections are a normal part of the human experience. If you do not achieve a certain standard on one task it does not mean that you as a person are now a failure. Even challenge the word “failure”, this is my least favourite word in the English Dictionary! It’s a concept we as humans have created, it only has meaning because we attribute meaning to it. Recognise any “should” or “must” thinking, these words in our self-talk only serve to place high standards upon ourselves/others. Replace with phrases, such as, “I would like to…”. Also be aware of any catastrophic thinking, will it really be that bad if X does not happen?
2. Set realistic goals: Instead of setting impossibly high standards for yourself, try setting realistic goals that are achievable and within your control. Focus on progress rather than perfection. Some individuals fear that if they lower their standard then performance will significantly drop, this isn’t the case and this is perhaps the “all or nothing” thinking coming in. Think of hard working as being on a continuum between being super hard working at one end and being super unproductive at the other end. To begin with you are working on bringing it down a notch on the continuum so you can still work relatively hard but to a lesser extent allowing you to still do well with fewer negative outcomes.
3. Reset the Balance: Focus on how well you have been doing, give yourself praise for this, rather than on what you can be doing better.
4. Practice self-compassion: Perfectionists tend to be very hard on themselves when they make mistakes. Practice self-compassion by treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend.
5. Extend Other Areas of Your Life: Try to commit time to other valued areas of your life, such as your emotional wellbeing, relationships and hobbies. Prioritise self-care to help you manage stress and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
6. Seek support: Consider seeking support from a therapist who can help you identify the underlying causes of your perfectionism, what is serving to maintain it and provide tools to manage it.
7. Exposure Therapy: Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing yourself to situations that challenge your perfectionism in a safe and controlled environment. This can help you build resilience and reduce anxiety over time. Start by identifying your perfectionistic behaviours, analyse the pros and cons of them. It is likely the cons largely outweigh the pros! Then begin to tackle each behaviour.
Remember, it's okay to strive for excellence and to have high standards for yourself, but it's important to find a healthy balance and to prioritise your well-being. With practice, it's possible to overcome perfectionism and to live a fulfilling and balanced life.
If you would like support from a therapist to address your perfectionism, feel free to contact me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or kindly complete the webform.