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What is perfectionism?

September 5, 2022

Being hard-working, conscientious and diligent are desirable characteristics that allow us to focus on achieving our goals. But setting extremely high standards for ourselves and expecting a flawless performance all the time can be a sign of perfectionism.

Although it’s not a mental health condition in itself, perfectionism is a trait that can lead to anxiety, stress and worry, and even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). So, what is a perfectionist?

Someone who is a perfectionist may spend a lot of time on a task to ensure they do it ‘correctly’. The demands they place on themselves can sometimes make them feel like what they’re doing is a chore rather than enjoyable. They may have self-critical thoughts that stem from the belief that they’re not ‘good enough’ when they haven’t achieved the desired outcome, such as:

  • “I’m only good enough if I get the top results at work all the time”
  • “I’m only a good friend if I’m regularly in touch with and supporting everyone in my friendship circle”
  • “I’m only good enough if I keep the house clean for visitors”.

A fear of failure can lead to a perfectionist procrastinating – putting an activity off, or avoiding it altogether – because they fear they won’t be able to do it correctly. Some people will wear themselves out by over-preparing or feeling like they always need to do more.

Pushing yourself to meet these demands will add constant pressure and stress into your life. The anxiety and worry you might feel when you try to get better results can creep into self-doubt, shame, and depression if you fall short of that ‘perfect’ outcome.

If your perfectionism is affecting the level of enjoyment you have in day-to-day life and your general wellbeing, you can try to reduce how much your self-esteem depends on your accomplishments.

Focus on what is good in the present moment. Perfectionists often worry so much about achieving the ‘right’ outcome that they overlook how valid and important the process is as part of the experience. Practice daily gratitude by writing down five things that are going well, just as they are, in the present moment.

Challenge high expectations. Do you find that you reach the goals you set, or are you somehow always falling short? Think about the times when things didn’t go as expected. Did any positives or opportunities emerge? How many of the negative outcomes or feelings could be attributed to your inner mind and self-criticism?

See what happens when you challenge the thought that if something isn’t perfect then it’s worthless. Gently push yourself to lower your standards a little, while telling yourself that no single event or characteristic defines you as a human being.

Practice self-compassion. Be aware of your self-critical inner voice – the one that says, for instance, ‘I’m not good enough because I made a mistake’. Does this voice help you in any way, or not? Would you speak to someone else like this? We’re often much more compassionate, kind and constructive with others than ourselves. When your self-critical voice pipes up, try writing down what you’d say to a friend, and say it to yourself: ‘OK, you made a mistake, but you’re human and everyone does it. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure.’

This will take time, especially if that voice is loud! It might help to gather your favourite self-compassionate statements and practice saying them to yourself regularly.

Question your ‘shoulds’. Having lots of internal should’s and shouldn’t’s can lock us into a rigid black-and-white, good-and-bad, right-and-wrong, success-and-failure way of thinking. If the word ‘should’ pops up, this signals a belief about the standards you’ve set for yourself, or you’ve learnt from others. Try turning the rule you’ve made into a guideline instead. ‘I should clean the house from top to bottom before a visitor comes’ might become ‘I will aim to clean the house before a visitor comes, but if I miss a room that’s OK’.

Find a balance. We all need a mix of activities in our lives to feel happy and fulfilled. Exercise self-compassion by giving yourself permission to do the activities that are relaxing and enjoyable, not just those linked to achievement:

  • those that give us pleasure, such as watching a film or attending a social event
  • those that are routine, such as work and household chores
  • those that are necessary, such as paying bills or getting the car serviced.

If your perfectionism is leading to anxiety or low mood, or interfering with your ability to function day-to-day, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help. Find out more about online CBT with ieso here.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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