Perfectionism is not a personality disorder; it's a personality trait.
Brené Brown is a psychologist, professor, author, and one of the leading researchers on shame. She outlines the difference between healthy behaviour and perfectionism best; "Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth." She further explains the use of perfectionism as a protective mechanism against the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.
What is perfectionism?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), perfectionism is "the tendency to demand of others or oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems."
Signs of Perfectionism
- Procrastination stemming from not being able to start a task until you can do it perfectly [and strong discomfort with the learning curve].
- Hyper-focus on the outcome rather than the process.
- Difficulty letting go or accepting a task is done for the day unless it's completely finished.
- Spend excessive amounts of time to complete a task beyond it's usual duration.
Examples of Perfectionistic Behaviour
- Spending 30 minutes writing and re-writing a two-sentence email
- Focusing on the 5% deduction on an exam rather than the 95% result
- Difficulty being happy for others' success
- Unrelenting upwards social comparison
- Not feeling happy or not being able to enjoy your time until you've achieved 'perfect'.
- Avoiding a new task or activity because you do not yet know how to do it well
- Not allowing yourself rest or not knowing how to rest
- Frequent mirror checking.
- Rumination and excessive worrying before and following social interaction.
- Assuming a conflict in a relationship means it's over.
Types of Perfectionism
- Personal standards perfectionism: considered a healthy form of perfectionism. It is where you are disciplined in striving towards and meeting your personal goals.
- Self-critical perfectionism: occurs when someone is likely to feel demotivated, intimidated, or hopeless in pursuit of their self-identified goals and high standards. People who experience this type of perfectionism are prone to anxiety, depression, stress and they are at higher risk for self-harm and suicide (Blatt, 1995).
- Socially prescribed perfectionism: exists when someone's performance is held to a social standard of excellence and precision, such as surgeons, lawyers, athletes, and medical professionals. It also applies to those that have been exposed to high societal and cultural standards for academic achievement and status.
Reasons to Seek Help and Overcome Perfectionism
Research has found a strong correlation between perfectionism and the following mental health issues:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- High levels of stress
- Suicide risk
- Eating disorders
Thought Experiment on Perfectionism
What if success and perfection matters more to be than my mental health?
It's valid and honourable to want to prioritize success [in however you define it], and that choice is only yours to make. Let's step back and look at this through a lens of curiosity.
Do your best to answer the following questions as honestly as you can.
- What is success to you? How will you know once you've achieved 'perfection'?
- Why is success [however you define it] important to you? What do you hope it will give you?
- Take it one step further. What do you hope these outcomes of perfection will give you?
- How will you reap the benefits of these rewards if you've never learned to let yourself enjoy and be content with what is?
Chances are if you followed the path far enough, you ultimately hope that the outcomes of success or perfection will provide a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, permission to relax, acceptance, inner peace, connection, security and joy.
Many people with perfectionism have been praised for their achievements, which further reinforces the drive to perform. The strive for perfection might have greatly contributed to an individual's current success, which reinforces unhealthy behaviours that helped them achieve.
Overcoming perfectionism does not mean letting go of your goals. Rather, it encourages you to zoom out and consider the whole picture of your life. It asks, "How can I move towards these goals, while knowing when to take the foot off the gas and trusting myself to accelerate when needed?"
Ultimately, if you seek perfection in hopes of being able to experience inner peace, love, and acceptance, then you may be pleased to know that these are qualities of life that are reasonably achievable without [or on your way to] 'perfection'.
Therapy for Perfectionism
Therapy for perfectionism will likely involve understanding your specific relationship with perfectionistic behaviour and understanding its function. Common themes that might be targeted include addressing:
- Fear of failure
- A desire to be loved and admired
- The need to please others
Your therapist will tailor their approach to help you strive towards your goals without the emotional drain that often accompanies unrelenting self-criticism and perfectionistic thinking.
Things you can do now to start overcoming perfectionism:
- Challenge all or nothing thinking.
Our brain likes to think in extremes - especially when emotions are high. The reality is usually more nuanced than automatic black or white thoughts that initially arise when perfectionism is triggered. Start by naming the all-or-nothing thinking, acknowledge that it's unhelpful, and take a moment to consider all the information and context.
- Remind yourself of what you trust yourself on.
Self-efficacy is a protective factor for mental health. It's the sense of trust that you can handle what comes your way and you can achieve your goals. Do you trust yourself to go to bed on time? To keep some promises to yourself? To meet a deadline?
- Follow the 'what if' fear-provoking thought all the way down the pathway.
What would happen if the worst happened? How would you cope with the consequences? Think about it. Imagine yourself coping effectively and skillfully.
- Be mindful of your inner critic.
Rather than combat it constantly and try to get rid of it, aim to change your relationship with it. Practice turning down the volume, let it take a back seat, and let it exist without feeding into it.
- Develop alternative voices.
We know the inner critic, what about the inner coach? The cheerleader? The nurturing parent? The inner wisdom? The fierce friend? These are all ways of being with ourself that can be developed by using these voices with ourselves and surrounding ourselves with supportive people.
- Make mistakes... on purpose!
Exposure therapy at its finest. How do we get better at dealing with the pain and cringe that comes with making mistakes? We expose ourselves to the feelings in predictable, manageable ways. We pay attention to the feelings as they arise and we actively practice responding to these feelings with less judgment and more openness and willingness.
- Don't keep all your eggs in one basket.
Expand your interests, hobbies, and skillsets outside of the one that you pressure yourself on. This teaches us how to learn, how to be vulnerable, and reminds us that our identity is not just one thing.
- American Psychologist Association. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://dictionary.apa.org/perfectionism
- Blatt, S. J. (1995). The destructiveness of perfectionism: Implications for the treatment of depression. American psychologist, 50(12), 1003.
- Perfectionism. (2019, May 11). GoodTherapy. Retrieved from: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/perfectionism
- Scutti, S. (2014, September 26). Perfectionists, especially doctors, architects, and lawyers, are at higher risk of suicide. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/perfectionists-especially-doctors-architects-and-lawyers-are-higher-risk-suicide-305256