What is perfectionism?
We often think of perfectionism as a positive weakness. For example, a common answer to the classic interview question, “What would you say is your biggest weakness” is, “I’m too much of a perfectionist!” By this, they mean that they have high standards, or they are highly motivated to achieve their goals.
However, when psychologists talk and think about perfectionism, we tend to think of it as a desire to do a good job that has been taken a step too far.
Perfectionism can show itself through setting excessively high standards for yourself or others; putting off tasks to avoid mistakes or failure leading to stress; having an overly critical lens; not effectively delegating believing that only they can do a job correctly leading to burnout; or being overly critical of perceived mistakes or shortcomings.
Consider Janet, a fictional employee preparing a big presentation at work. She spends excessive time in meticulous preparation fearing that imperfections will reflect poorly on her; she conducts unnecessary additional research to make it perfect; she micromanages rather than working with others on the presentation; she gets increasingly stressed as the due date approaches; and often experiences negative self talk and berates herself for her perceived inadequacies.
Indeed, a good job taken a step too far.
How to soften or reduce the role of perfectionism in your life.
In my clinical practice, I’ve found that there are a range of different approaches to dealing with perfectionism.
Here are three examples.
1. Reframe negative or unhelpful patterns of thinking.
Reframing is a key skill from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The idea is that our distress arises not from our circumstances, but from our evaluation of our circumstances. Perfectionists commonly adopt an unhelpfully negative or rigid view of themselves or the world. Here’s an example for Janet:
|Upcoming big presentation for work.
|“This needs to be perfect otherwise they might fire me!””I’m a pathetic failure; I can’t do anything right.”
Bringing our perspective back into balance is a key step in reducing our distress and weakening the pattern of perfectionism in our lives. Janet would benefit from reframing her circumstances in a more balanced way like:
“It’s OK! My best is enough! They are quite unlikely to be as harsh as what I originally feared. I’m going to keep focused on the presentation and let the results speak for themselves. Even if I make a mistake, that’s OK because it’s reasonable and not as threatening as I think it might be.”
2. Become better friends with mistakes and failure.
Mistakes and failure are a vital part of a healthy life. However, we often tend to avoid these as much as possible, mostly because it makes us feel very unpleasant.
It’s common for clients to get really disappointed with themselves too quickly when they make a mistake when trying to learn a new task or skill. I often show my clients this excellent video from Mike Boyd called “Learn to Muscle Up” which shows the painful process of trying to learn how to do a muscle up. I often ask my clients, “How long do you think it would take for Mike to learn how to do a muscle up from scratch?” They sometimes estimate that it would take between three hours to a week. The video shows that it takes him 93 days! We tend to get frustrated with our failures (which can be exacerbated by perfectionism) which leads us to give up too quickly.
Becoming better friends with mistakes and failure is important because it is an important and necessary path to growth. Learning to embrace mistakes and failure and become more comfortable with them is a true superpower!
3. Be deliberately kinder to yourself.
Self-compassion is a concept that is emphasised in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s all about being as kind to yourself, as you are with others.
I’m often struck by how vicious perfectionists can be with themselves in their self-talk. They often use labels for themselves that would be taken as extremely offensive if someone actually applied these in real life.
I sometimes use a self-compassion exercise which goes like this:
Have you had a very mean teacher?
In contrast, have you ever had a positive, affirming, and warm teacher?
Which of these teachers helped you to perform at your best?
Aim to be that type of teacher for yourself!
Self compassion works because it is genuinely a better way to be with yourself that leads to better results than if we are harsh with ourselves.
Perfectionism can be very deeply ingrained and quite stubborn to overcome. I’d encourage anyone struggling with this issue to work with a psychologist to put into practice what I’ve discussed in this article. In short:
- Reframe your unhelpful self-comparisons or judgements in a more balanced way.
- Become better friends with mistakes and failure.
- Be as gentle with yourself as you are with others.
Please reach out and book an appointment with me (or one of our other psychologists at Attuned Psychology) to get started on focusing on doing a good job, rather than taking things that step too far.
Fergus McPharlin MAPS
Subscribe to our newsletter Attuned Life
Would you be interested in receiving our occasional newsletter, event information and other useful tips via e-mail?