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Perfectionism

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What is Perfectionism?

Although the word perfectionism contains the word “perfect”, perfectionism can actually be quite problematic.  Perfectionism involves having excessively high inflexible standards that are difficult or impossible to reach. Ironically, by trying to avoid making mistakes, you can wind up in all kinds of trouble.

Perfectionism can be something that you…

  • Impose on yourself (e.g., grades in school)
  • Impose on others (e.g., how to do things “correctly”)
  • Believe others are imposing on you (e.g., social anxiety)

How do I know if I’m a Perfectionist?

It’s common for people to be perfectionistic in some areas but not others. Below are some life domains that are prone to perfectionism. Do any of these examples sound like you?

  • Work and school. E.g., Not accepting less than an A+.
  • Neatness and cleanliness. E.g., Scrubbing the kitchen floor on a daily basis.
  • Organization and ordering.  E.g., Making and remaking lists.
  • Writing. E.g., Taking too much time to fill out forms, write emails or letters, write term papers.
  • Speaking. E.g., Worrying about saying things incorrectly or mispronouncing words, feeling compelled to correct things that others say because you are overly concerned about accuracy.
  • Physical appearance.  E.g., Worrying about your weight, hair loss, or clothing. Rejecting others who do not meet your expectations.
  • Health and personal cleanliness. E.g., Being particular about foods (not eating foods that contain fat), going to the doctors too often to check out every little symptom and having unnecessary medical tests, washing excessively.

Signs that you may be a perfectionist:

Overcompensating:  Overdoing things to make sure that it is “just right”.

  • Telling stories in excruciating detail to make sure nothing has been left out.
  • Keeping things perfectly clean, over-washing to the point of skin cracking.
  • Taking 2 days off of work to clean your house before guests arrive.
  • Hiring the best or most expensive person to complete even simple tasks.

Procrastinating or avoiding things because you are too overwhelmed with how to do them properly or they don’t seem “good enough” for you. Avoiding may be based on the assumption that you can’t fail if you don’t try.

  • Checking your email or going on the internet instead of working or studying.
  • Playing computer or video games instead of filing your taxes.
  • Making excuses to avoid doing things you don’t know how to do, e.g., cooking.
  • Not having a relationship because no one is “good enough” for you.
  • Rejecting friends because they do not meet your high standards.
  • Not applying for jobs because they are not 100% of what you are looking for.

Excessive slowness.

  • Reading too slowly so that you don’t miss anything.
  • Taking too long to make a decision, e. g., what apple to buy at the grocery store.
  • Speaking too slowly to avoid saying the wrong thing.
  • Showering or grooming too slowly and meticulously.
  • Working too slowly, which limits the amount of projects you can take on.

Catastrophic thinking: Thinking that something terrible will happen and that you won’t be able to cope.

  • I can’t make a mistake in front of the class.
  • If I’m not thin no one will love me.
  • If I miss even one day at work I won’t get a promotion.

You make inappropriate (upwards only) social comparisons.

  • You just started a new job and you compare yourself to more senior employees.
  • You feel like a failure because your friend got a higher mark then  you.
  • You compare yourself to people that are older than you, e.g., siblings.
  • You compare yourself to professionals, e.g., professional athletes.
  • You compare your appearance to models that have been airbrushed.

You use a lot of “should” statements and have many rules about how things should be done

  • I should never make mistakes at work.
  • I should be able to anticipate and prevent problems.
  • I should always get an A+ at school.
  • My co-workers should never be late for work.
  • My children should always do what I say.

Excessive organizing and list-making.

  • When planning your day, you can’t decide the best order to do things in, which paralyzes you from getting things done.
  • You make lists that include tiny items that you don’t really need to write down.

Not knowing when to quit.

  • Inviting too many people to your wedding because you don’t want to offend anyone.
  • Arguing with others because you can never be wrong.
  • Spending too much time on every exam question and running out of time.

Giving up too soon.

  • Going to the gym a few times and then giving up because you don’t see results fast enough.
  • Learning a new musical instrument and quitting because you are not a superstar overnight.

Difficulty trusting others.

  • Micromanaging others because you do not trust them to do things “properly”.
  • Doing too many things yourself because you fear delegating tasks and not having them done correctly.
  • Not accepting help or favours from others because you don’t believe their contributions will be good enough.

Excessive checking.

  • Constantly examining yourself in the mirror to make sure that nothing is out of place.
  • Emailing, calling, and faxing the same message to someone and then checking to make sure they received it.

Difficulty making decisions.

  • You can’t decide which sweater to buy, so you buy one in every colour.
  • Even small decisions take too long, e.g., choosing food from a menu.

Reassurance seeking.

  • Asking others to do things for you because you don’t trust yourself to do it properly.
  • Asking questions you already know the answers to, because you want to be 100% sure.

Repeating and correcting things.

  • Repeating yourself to ensure others heard you correctly.
  • Reminding people about the same things over and over because you’re worried they will forget.
  • Correcting someone mid-sentence to ensure that all the details are exact.

Having have tunnel vision: Not “seeing the forest for the trees”.

  • Only noticing your mistakes or flaws, rather than what you did well.
  • Focusing on what people didn’t do for you, rather than your overall experience with them.
  • Getting stuck on details and going on too many tangents when trying to write or say something, getting you further and further off track.

Isn’t being perfectionistic a good thing?

Here’s how perfectionism can negatively impact you or others…

Negative consequences at work or school.

  • You feel burnt out: You never take lunch breaks, you take on too many projects or shifts to avoid looking “weak” or “lazy”.
  • You are underpaid: You work extra hours and do not claim them because you don’t want anyone to know how “slow” you work because you think your pace is not fast enough, or because you know you actually did slow yourself down due to perfectionistic behaviours like over-checking things.

Your performance goes down.

  • You have an exam so you cut out all things like eating properly, exercising, seeing friends and family. On the day of the exam you are jittery from all the coffee you’ve taken, tired from lack of sleep, and having low energy from being malnourished.
  • You get so fixated on doing things perfectly that you miss deadlines.

You increase the emotions or consequences that you are trying to avoid.

E.g., In the case of social anxiety, People use control strategies as a way of helping themselves get through social situations. However, they can backfire and make you more anxious.

  • If you fear saying the wrong thing, you might try rehearsing what you are going to next during a conversation.  However, doing this instead of listening, actually makes it harder for you to follow the conversation, and actually increases your chance of saying something that is not relevant.
  • If you fear shaking in front of others, you may try holding a stiff posture so that others won’t notice you shaking, but this can actually strain your muscles and lead to more shaking.
  • If you fear that others will notice you sweating, you may try wearing many layers of clothing to hide the sweat. But in so doing, you are actually making yourself hotter, and therefore sweatier.

People start to avoid you.

  • People may have learned that the best way to not disappoint you is to not tell you things, so they start to hide things from you.
  • People may stop doing things for you, e.g., if you always criticize how your employees do tasks, they may avoid you or try to switch departments.
  • If children feel like they cannot please their parents in school, they may give up trying altogether.

Things are not fun anymore.

  • You are so focused on work, school, or your physical appearance that you might not have any hobbies, or have trouble relaxing or having fun.
  • Hobbies can start to feel like a chore when you focus on performance rather than having fun, be it sports, art, or learning a musical instrument.

Perfectionism can lead to problems in psychological functioning:

  • Social anxiety
  • Depression
  • Generalized anxiety and worry
  • Anger
  • Body image and eating issues
  • OCD (order and cleanliness)

Why Therapy for Perfectionism is Important

On the surface, being perfectionistic can seem like a good thing. Who wouldn’t want a perfect life? Unfortunately, perfectionism usually causes more harm than good. Therapy can help you learn how to strive for excellence, which is a healthier approach.

References:
When perfect isn’t good enough (2009), by Martin Antony and Richard Swinson.