What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is not necessarily about being 'perfect' or about doing something perfectly. People often refer to a perfectionist as someone who strives to achieve their very best in everything they do. Even researchers in the field may not agree on the 'perfect' definition of perfectionism! However, research often centres round the following definition:
Perfectionism is striving to meet self-imposed, very demanding standards, relentlessly pursued despite negative consequences. It involves basing one's self-worth almost entirely on how well these high standards are pursued and achieved.
Often people who can be described as perfectionists may not recognise that this is indeed at the root of their problems. Perfectionists often present with anxiety, depression, procrastination, social anxiety, eating difficulties and OCD. Behaviours associated with Perfectionism are:
- excessive checking (e.g. reading an email over and over before sending it to check the text is completely 'perfect').
- reassurance seeking
- repeating tasks (e.g. rewriting and editing something over and over)
- list making
- difficulty making decisions
- not knowing when to stop
- excessive organising and tidying
- hating to waste time, and as a consequence, being over-busy
When does pursuing excellence become Perfectionism?
Setting goals and having high standards helps us achieve things in life. There is a difference, however, between a healthy pursuit of excellence and unhelpful perfectionism. When goals and tasks are only achievable at great cost, emotionally and/or physically and socially, perfectionism becomes a problem and can actually impair performance.
- Try a thought diary- it can help you become aware of negative thoughts and how they make you feel and behave. It can help you investigate how useful these thoughts are and regain balance.
- Are you putting unreasonable expectations on yourself? A good question to ask yourself is, what would you say to a friend with these expectations? Would you think its too much or that they were putting too much pressure on themselves? It can be helpful to gain a different perspective.
- Try to think about the amount of importance you place on different areas of your life that contribute to your self worth. Not just academic/work achievements but things like hobbies, are you a good friend, are you considerate, creative.
What help can be found?
Changing perfectionism is not easy, as one has to weigh the advantages and disadvantages. A person who has unhelpful perfectionism has to first recognise that it is a problem. Self-help books and websites, such as those listed below, can help one identify which areas of perfectionism apply to them and to assess motivation for change. Workshops, counselling and CBT, (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can help a person begin to address the underlying beliefs and thinking styles that maintain perfectionism.
Antony, M.M. and Swinson, R.P. When Pefect Isn't Good Enough; Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism, Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications
Flett, G.L. and Hewitt, P.L. (2002) Perfectionism: Theory, Research and Treatment. Washington DC, APA
Work booklet and support on perfectionism https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Perfectionism
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