When Perfect Just Isn’t Good Enough
Although striving for excellence can be a noble pursuit, striving for perfection can have more negative consequences. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable”. When we focus on an outcome like perfectionism, we open ourselves up to becoming susceptible to feelings of anxiety, disappointment, frustration, and inadequacy. This can lead to anxiety disorders.
Dealing with impossibly high standards can be an important part of living a life that is more fulfilling and consistent with your values. By being able to let go of ‘the little things’, you are able to have more resources to focus on the truly important things in your life.
Below, I go through the specific steps of dealing with perfectionism using a cognitive-behavioural framework.
Step 1. Notice where these perfectionistic beliefs came from
More often than not, our current behavioural patterns and belief systems are developed quite early in life. People and society instill upon us the need to meet expectations very early on in life in a multitude of ways: speaking and writing language properly, appropriate social conduct, academic evaluations, among many other examples. We also have an innate need to reach certain expectations to ensure that we are viewed in a positive light by others. Therefore, reaching a certain level of expectation is generally helpful in life.
However, for some individuals, there are certain beliefs about expectations that may have been instilled in a way that promoted perfectionistic tendencies. For example, a little boy named George may have been raised by very authoritarian parents. George was often criticized for any behaviours that were less than perfect. His parents would scold him if he received less than 100% on his academics and chastise him for any errors in his social behaviours (e.g., if he was not sitting with good posture, not using utensils correctly, etc.).
Because of these early experiences, George developed a few underlying guiding beliefs:
– “If I am not perfect, people will not accept me, and I will be chastised”
– “Anything short of perfection is unsatisfactory”
– “I must be perfect, or I am useless”
In George’s cases, his beliefs are a result of an overemphasis on achievement from his parents. In a certain way, perfectionism actually had a beneficial impact on George’s early life, as he would avoid being scolded from his parents. However, the issue is that George’s perfectionistic beliefs may not be particularly helpful in his current life. George’s tendencies make it hard for him to disengage from his work life; it affects his relationship with friends and romantic partners; and he is overall on edge and stressed because of his need to be perfect.
Before we change our perfectionistic beliefs, it’s often helpful to understand where they came from. I would encourage you to think back to situations in your early experiences where perfectionistic beliefs developed.
Step 2. Honour the benefits of perfectionism in your life
It’s important to recognize that there are few traits that are truly good or bad. Oftentimes, traits typically serve us well in some domains and poorly in others – perfectionism is no different.
For some people, the reason why they are so successful is partly because of their perfectionistic tendencies. An example of that would be a professor, who was able to become successful in their field because they were perfectionistic in their studies and career. Part of the reason why their research is so well-received is because of their attention-to-detail in their methodology.
Another example might be a famous surgeon known for her incredible success rate in surgeries.
I would encourage you to reflect back to see if there’s any areas where perfectionism may have benefited you.
Step 3. Notice where perfectionism may be negatively impacting you
To support moving towards where we want to be, it’s important to distinguish between where perfectionism is helpful, and where perfectionism hinders us.
For example, perfectionism can sometimes come out as a need to control everything in your life. This could impact relationships because people feel that you are too controlling; it could impact how we deal with uncertainty because life can be uncertain; or it may lead to avoiding new experiences because don’t know what will happen.
Step 4. Jot down certain negative thoughts and unhelpful behaviour patterns
When our perfectionistic side comes out in a situation, notice the specific thoughts and behaviours that come out in response.
For example, the situation could be: writing an email to a boss. The thought may be “if I don’t write this email perfectly, then they will perceive me as useless, and I might get fired”. The resulting behaviour could be “checking the email for hours”.
As you may notice, our brain may be engaging in certain thinking errors that are slightly out of touch with reality, and our behaviours reflect the thought. Unfortunately, this maintains our belief that perfectionism is the only option, or that it is helpful when in reality it is causing distress.
Step 5. Cognitive strategies for perfectionism
There are a few different cognitive strategies you can employ to beginning tackling some of the beliefs about perfectionism.
1. Thought records. Thought records are a way to evaluate the perfectionistic thoughts using evidence both in support and against the thought.
For example, you may have the thought that “if I don’t do this presentation perfectly, I will not get the job”.
Evidence for the thought may be that the quality of the presentation will impact success rates of getting the job.
On the other hand, you might recall times where you made a mistake in an interview but still got an offer; and even if you did not, there may be other reasons why you didn’t get the job. Perhaps the interviewers ended up choosing to hire internally instead.
By using thought records, you move into a balanced thought that honours both sides: “Interviews are an important part of the hiring process. However, just because I am not perfect that doesn’t mean I will not get the job. I have gotten jobs before even when my interview had a few mistakes. Moreover, the hiring committee looks at other aspects of an applicant’s file. Even if I do not get the job, that may not be related to the interview.”.
2. Mindfulness. Mindfulness practices allow us to distance ourselves from the specific thoughts and recognize that thoughts are simply thoughts. By removing the power of thoughts, we are less likely to react to a situation, and gives us the time to respond in a way that is consistent with our values. For example, we might have an automatic reaction to review an email many times to ensure its perfection. But through mindfulness, we decide that the time would be best spent elsewhere (e.g., with friends/family), and decide to send the email in spite of the anxiety we feel.
3. Considering our values. We may also be able to break past our fears of not being perfect by focusing on why it’s important for us to make a change – i.e., our values. Consider what we lose by focusing on perfection. Is it quality time with family? Is it more important tasks at work? Is it trying out new experiences and hobbies because we are too worried that we are not perfect?
Write down a few reasons why it’s important for you to push past the anxiety of not being perfect.
Step 6. Behavioural strategies for perfectionism
1. Adopt a curious scientist approach. One of my past patients struggled with perfectionism. One strategy that she found extremely helpful was adopting the stance of a curious experimenter. As a curious experimenter, you are simply observing whether or not a new behaviour is helpful. Therefore, you are not married to an outcome; simply doing something and seeing what happens.
For that particular patient, she reported that this stance gave her psychological distance to try things that she normally would not be able to do because of her perfectionism. Because of this, she was able to learn that certain behaviours were actually helpful to getting to her goals and her overall well-being.
2. Behavioural experiments. In line with the curious scientist approach, behavioural experiments are a way to investigate whether our negative predictions are true or not. For example, our belief might be that “If I am slightly late to arriving at a social gathering, then I will be seen poorly”.
You might then decide to formally test out this belief by arriving 10 minutes late to the next party and simply evaluate whether the prediction was true or not. After the party, you could jot down what ended up happening and if your negative prediction was true. And if it was, were you able to cope with the outcome?
Behavioural experiments are great tools for a curious scientist. It allows to unravel whether our negative predictions are true or not. Importantly, even if it the prediction was true, it gives us an opportunity to see just how resilient we are to different situations.
- Perfectionistic beliefs are usually developed through early experiences
- Perfectionistic traits can be beneficial and harmful to our lives
- It is important to recognize situations where perfectionism may be hindering our goals and values
- Cognitive and behavioural strategies work by targeting beliefs about perfectionism to properly evaluate whether these beliefs are true.
I hope this post was helpful in giving you some strategies to work through some beliefs about perfectionism! For a broader resource for overcoming perfectionism, I would encourage you to check out this book by Dr. Martin Anthony and Dr. Richard Swinson: When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough.
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