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The Imperfection of Perfectionism

Lukenotes, Spring 2019

Most successful people set very high standards for themselves. They use these guidelines or principles for comparison or approval, or to measure achievement.

Standards can stimulate personal growth and push a person to reach a peak level of performance, ideally bringing enjoyment and developing confidence. Problems arise, though, when the standards a person sets for herself or for others are unrealistically high and inflexible. Standards become problematic when they lapse into perfectionism.

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is defined as “strict standards or expectations for oneself or others that either cannot be met or can only be met at a great cost”1. We see perfectionism manifested in people who are perpetually stressed and constantly dissatisfied with their achievement and relationships.

It may seem counterintuitive, but perfectionists often achieve less than those with healthier attitudes. Perfectionists feel immobilized by their perceived inability to get things “right.” They are overly critical of their own behavior, are less likely to be aware of their strengths, and are unable to derive real satisfaction from successful performance.

Perfectionists also have chronic concerns about others’ criticism and expectations, and are often unable to delegate tasks for fear of being disappointed by any performance that proves less-than-perfect. Healthy individuals who strive for excellence can interpret mistakes as an incentive to work harder or smarter, whereas perfectionists consider their mistakes as confirmation of their suspected personal defects.

Roots of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is frequently an adaptation to a hypercritical, high-pressure, invalidating environment, and it becomes a psychological self-defense strategy.

Many perfectionists have parents with narcissistic traits who tend to seek much of their status from the performance of their children. Through repeated learning, children raised in an environment that is hyper-focused on mistakes become hyper-focused on potential mistakes.

Society also promotes the idea that things are done only in a particular way, and that it is essential not to make mistakes. Punishment for mistakes can make a child develop distorted beliefs  (e.g., “I must never make a mistake!”) and become preoccupied with a fear of failure. This keeps the child from engaging in challenging experiences, reduces playfulness and the assimilation of knowledge, and prevents discovering his/her true identity.

Instead, a child learns that approval is contingent upon performance. (e.g., “People will only be proud of me if I am successful”). Self-worth becomes dependent upon success and achievement. Unfortunately, over time such a belief becomes rigid and inflexible and is carried into adulthood.

Thought and Behavior Cycle

Perfectionism can lead a person to become trapped in an unhelpful cycle of thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, and behavioral impulses. The dysfunctional “all or nothing” and “catastrophic” thinking of perfectionism can lead to faulty assumptions and worsen moods. A person can take beliefs as facts and respond to a distorted interpretation of what is happening around him or her, rather than taking a more realistic and objective perspective.

To alleviate the anxiety evoked by obsessive and catastrophic thinking, perfectionists engage in behaviors such as excessive checking, reassurance-seeking, correcting, repeating, list-making, and excessive organizing. Plagued with self-doubt and prone to self-criticism, perfectionists are more likely to avoid, quit, or procrastinate to evade what they believe is inevitable failure.

Psychological Functioning

Perfectionism can also put a person at risk for developing various psychological disorders. Examples are depression, anxiety, and, indirectly, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research indicates perfectionists experience more hopeless thoughts and life stress. There is a higher risk for self-harm and suicide.

Learning how to set realistic standards can help perfectionists do one’s best without disruption to other areas of life (e.g., family, physical and mental health, and leisure time).

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown to successfully help perfectionists recognize irrational thinking and find alternative ways to approach situations. In therapy, one can learn how to examine evidence that either confirms or contradicts a certain belief. This is achieved through reflecting on past experiences, taking another perspective, accepting imperfections while embracing reality, and compromising with self and others.

It is important that perfectionists repeatedly encounter the “imperfection” that causes emotional distress and discomfort until it no longer generates high anxiety. This helps one discover the capacity to confront fears and more effectively manage feelings of anxiety. Strategies such as prioritizing, setting time limits, and breaking up the task into smaller more manageable pieces  help prevent fear-based avoidance, procrastination, and quitting.

The essential goal is to assist perfectionists with gradually identifying more realistic standards that will be accepted or at least tolerated, and to learn that even when a mistake is made, the consequences are not dire.

Maja K. Triantafilou, MA, LCPC, is a senior outpatient therapist at Caritas Counseling Center in Towson, MD.

1Antony, M. & Swinson, R. (2009). When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.