Often for my patients that struggle with perfectionism, I notice a common theme in that they tend to have a very harsh “inner critic.”Patients who describe themselves as perfectionists often “beat themselves up” for perceived setbacks or mistakes. Additionally, they typically have “black and white” thinking patterns where they either see something as a “success” or “failure.”
The following are three tips for helping clients to break free from perfectionism.
1.Help Them to Practice Self-Compassion.
Self-compassion is crucial for everyone to practice, however particularly so for people who identify as perfectionists. This approach entails an ability for patients to first be mindful of their self-talk and recognize when they are “beating themselves up,” and to then respond from a place of kindness and care. For instance, they can practice speaking to themselves kindly as they would a loved one who was struggling.
Additionally, another important aspect of self-compassion is the concept of “common humanity.” This concept is the idea that making mistakes and being imperfect is part of the human experience and that they are certainty not alone.
2. Assist Them in Cultivating an Awareness of Their Thoughts.
I often explain to clients that we have an estimated 60,000 thoughts per day and that many of them are repeated thoughts. However, we do not have to believe everything that we think. Clients who struggle with perfectionism often have a lot of “black and white” or “all or nothing thinking.” For instance, they might see any mistake (or minor error) as a “failure.”
It can be helpful to assist patients in cultivating an awareness of their thinking. If a patient is experiencing thinking patterns or thoughts that are unhelpful, it can be beneficial for them to come up with some more helpful or “healthy self” coping statements that they can tell themselves.
3. Work with Them to Clarify Their Values and Determine if Perfectionism is Getting in the Way.
It can also be helpful to work with clients to clarify their true values and then to determine if their perfectionism is getting in the way of a meaningful and joyful life. Often, perfectionism can really get in the way of an individual’s ability to pursue their true values, as they are so bogged down in minor details that they may be unable to see the bigger picture of their lives.
Another way to go about doing this approach would be to utilize a “pro-con” DBT list. For instance, you could have the patient write the “pros” of being a perfectionist as well as the “cons.” Then, next, to each “pro” and “con” they can select whether it is short term of long term. For example, one “pro” of perfectionism could be that “it reduces my anxiety.” However, this “pro” is typically only for the short-term. An example of a “con” of anxiety could be that it keeps me from being able to complete projects, which could be a “long term” consequence.
The Bottom Line
People who struggle with perfectionism can often learn how to use their “high achieving” nature towards more adaptive pursuits. Additionally, in embracing their “imperfections” they can learn how to live more fulfilled and joyful lives.
All people are imperfect and it is a natural part of being human. We all make mistakes and fall short at times and attempting to live a life free from mistakes can start to feel like being imprisoned. However, there is another way. By embracing our imperfection and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we can uncover our true selves and discover a life that is worth living.