Many individuals strive to reach high standards or improve their performance, perhaps it's earning a higher grade or outdoing their personal best on a 5k run. Perfectionism is not healthy striving, as there is no genuine pleasure in trying to reach a goal, rather it's a painful struggle of self-doubt and fear of disapproval and rejection. Perfectionistic thinking patterns and behaviors increase one's vulnerability to depression, eating disorders, and anxiety - especially social and performance anxiety.
Perfectionism comes with many imperfections, as there are many ineffective thinking patterns and behaviors that come along with it. Here are some common signs of perfectionism:
- "All-or-nothing" thinking. Events and experiences are either all "good" or all "bad. There is no in-between. Stuck in rigid "all-or-nothing" thinking, perfectionists have difficulty seeing the "middle ground" or other options for acting. Often times, this kind of thinking can be seen as setting standards beyond reach and reason, which can hinder overall success and missing the "big picture." For example, an employee who is scheduled to review a report they drafted with colleagues at a meeting finds a minor error in their report just before the meeting. Rather than review the draft at the meeting, they tell their colleagues it's just not completed, thus setting the team behind.
- Procrastination. Rather than completing tasks that may have some imperfections, a perfectionist may ruminate and self-criticize to the point they are unable to get things done. For example, a students who reviews and edits a term paper over and over, agonizing over potential grammatical errors, to the point where they miss the deadline for fear of making a single mistake.
- Self-critical thinking. A perfectionist's mind can be filled with negative self-talk and pre-occupied with fears of failure and disapproval. Many times, a perfectionist discounts any positives and magnifies the negatives. For example, they may only focus on their mistakes and see these mistakes as evidence of unworthiness.
- Becoming overly defensive when criticized. Feedback or constructive criticism is often seen as a personal jab by the perfectionist, as any potential criticism is, in their mind, confirmation that they are a complete failure and disappointment. And who wouldn't be defensive after thinking that?!
Do any of these signs sound familiar? If so, know that you can move away from perfectionism and toward a healthy form of striving. Here's how:
1. Weigh the pros and cons of your perfectionism. Consider the pros of being a perfectionist and not being a perfectionist, as well as the cons of being a perfectionist and not being a perfectionist. I like to use the matrix at right to help with this. Weighing the pros and cons can shed light on problems perfectionism is creating for you in your relationships, work, school, eating, exercise, anxiety, and so on. It can also begin to open your mind to what life may be like without these problems that perfectionism can create.
2. Set realistic goals. Rather than setting unrealistic and unattainable goals for yourself, know that completing part of a goal is better than nothing at all. For example, say that you set a goal to read more for fun - so you set a goal to read five chapters in a book each week. When you find yourself not meeting this goal, rather than giving up on the goal altogether and not reading at all, read as much as you can, even if it's just part of one chapter. Remember, something is better than nothing at all. In the end, setting realistic goals can help you overcome "all-or-nothing" thinking and help you see the "middle ground."
3. Stop and use self-compassion. When finding yourself thinking self-critical thoughts or taking criticism personally, stop your train of thought by replacing the self-critical thought with a more accurate thought, or a self-compassionate or self-validating thought. To help with this, you can ask yourself: Is it really as bad as I think it is? Will this matter a year from now? How would a friend see it? Remember, mistakes and even complete failure is just information and opportunities for growth and learning.
While perfectionism may be an innate trait in many, it can often lead to problems in living. Know that with practice and use of the skills above, perfectionism can fade into healthy striving, leaving one to be able to fully enjoy the process of working towards goals as well as being able to bounce back from failure or disappointment.