In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait often characterized by someone setting high standards and striving to be flawless. It is often accompanied by a person being critical to self and concerned about other people’s evaluations of them.
Having high standards, however, can be a good thing. It helps us to accomplish goals and it helps to push us forward to completing tasks. So is perfectionism good or bad?
How Perfectionism Causes Harm
According to Center for Clinical Interventions (www.cci.health.wa.gov.au), “Perfectionism involves putting pressure on ourselves to meet high standards, which then powerfully influences the way we think about ourselves.”
Some people with perfectionism believe that making mistakes means they have failed, or that they are horrible for failing or disappointing other people. Making mistakes can be a scary thing and can cause anxiety. It can also make people procrastinate in fear that they will not produce a “perfect” ending to a task or not be able to meet a standard at all.
I had a 6th grade client who came for help with anxiety. When asked about school, both she and her mother mentioned that she was a high achiever and anything less than a score of 90 was not acceptable. The girl continued to tell me that she would go to sleep late because her homework had to be “perfect.” She was overly thorough in her assignments and spent hours on one assignment that took others 15 minutes to complete.
All her assignments were returned back to her with a grade over 95, and she strived each time to continue to achieve this grade or higher. She and her mother complained about her having severe anxiety, especially when it came to taking tests. She started to believe that she was not as capable as other people and compared herself to her peers who would achieve a 98 or 100 on a test or assignments. It was extremely important for her to be perfect.
There is nothing wrong with having high standards, but when these standards are too high, they can interfere with enjoyment in life, school, or work. In the case described above, my client had extremely high standards that interfered with her social life.
She would not go out with friends or participate in any activities after school. Her mother told me that she would stay home on the weekends studying and reading. Interaction and spending time with family members were scarce and she avoided trying new things.
How to Stop Perfectionism
While working with my young client, I had her try some of the following techniques:
- Change the way you think: People with perfectionism often have rigid thinking, such as black-and-white thinking: “I am a failure if it is not done perfectly;” catastrophic thinking: “If I make a mistake in front of my classmates, I won’t be able to survive the embarrassment;” and should statements: “I should always get things right.” It is important to think realistically. Try to replace self-critical thoughts with more realistic statements or statements that will help you. For example, ask yourself, “What would I tell my friend if she received a low score?” “Would I think that she is a failure for getting a low grade?” Practice telling yourself positive statements even if you do not believe them. Repetition will turn positive thoughts into a habit.
- Change the way you behave: Having perfectionism is like having a fear of making mistakes. Try gradually facing your fear of making errors. Slowly “expose” yourself to being imperfect and making mistakes. For example, if you repeatedly check a letter that you wrote for mistakes, try to stop yourself from checking your work after the first time. Also, put yourself in situations that you avoid out of fear that it will not come out perfectly. Practicing this technique a couple of times will make you feel more comfortable with making mistakes. Your anxiety will not lessen after the first time you practice this, but if you keep repeating the exposure or changing your behavior, you may see a decrease in your anxiety.
- Stop procrastinating: Many people with perfectionism tend to procrastinate. Setting a high or perfect standard may delay you from completing a task because you may feel that your work will not come out perfectly. Procrastination tends to make the anxiety worse because you may feel overwhelmed with all the work you are putting off. Try setting a realistic schedule, such as breaking down a large project into smaller manageable parts, and setting priorities by deciding which task is the most important to complete.
- Set a timer: If you plan to clean the house or work on a project, set a time limit. You will finish quicker, the task will get done, and you will not obsess over details. Also, set a deadline. This can help you to get moving instead of worrying over details.
- Strive for results, not judgments: Do not let your achievement be dictated by others’ judgments. Remember that you choose to do something because you want to, not because other people want you to or expect you to. If you are going to study, do it to learn rather than getting a higher, better score than your friend.
- Learn from your mistakes and failures: Expect to learn from making mistakes so you can do better next time. If you do not make mistakes, you won’t learn or improve. Remember that failure or making mistakes gives you an opportunity to do things better and to feel more inspired. Seek to fail and do things that you normally won’t do. You will learn a valuable lesson and realize that failing is not a bad thing.
- Recognize there is no ‘right’ way: You have to remember that you cannot please everyone. Someone will have something negative to say about the work you spend all your energy and time on. Remember, what matters is what you think about your completed work, not what others think. If you do something to please others, than it will feel like you are living for them and not for yourself.
- Be grateful: Make gratitude a part of your life. Realize that you have a choice in how you perceive things. Instead of being annoyed or upset that you received a low score, tell yourself that you will learn from the mistakes and that there are other tests that you can improve your score. I always tell my clients to look for the positives and be grateful in them. Appreciate what happens and welcome each moment as a gift rather than trying to mold it to fit your expectations.
Over time, my client’s anxiety level and perfectionistic tendencies decreased. In addition to some of the techniques mentioned above, cognitive behavioral therapy was also applied.
Asking her to make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of being perfect showed her that the costs are great and problems with her social network and family outweighed whatever advantages perfectionism had on her.
It is a great thing to have an inner drive to improve your performance and find pleasure in trying to meet high standards, but perfectionism can cause struggles with self-doubt and fears of rejection.
Photo courtesy of Daniela Vladimirova on flickr