What is Perfectionism?
Most people would say that perfectionism is about trying to be perfect. However, when you really think about it, what does “perfect” actually look like. “Perfect” is hard to define and therefore hard to achieve, which is where the problem with perfectionism starts.
Perfectionism usually involves the following three characteristics;
- A relentless striving for extremely high standards that are personally demanding, and are usually so high they appear excessive to an outsider.
- Judging self-worth based mostly on one’s ability to strive for and meet these unrelenting standards.
- Suffering from the negative consequences of setting such high demands but continuing to pursue them despite this huge cost to the self.
But Isn’t Trying to Be Perfect a Good Thing?
While it can be argued that high standards and a high need to achieve keeps us efficient, organised and prepared for anything, unreasonably high standards can get in the way of our happiness and actually impair our performance.
A perfectionist is rarely happy with their performance. If they achieve a goal easily, they are inclined to think that they didn’t “set the bar high enough”, and change their expectations. Excessively trying to achieve ever-higher levels of performance is self-defeating as it leaves little chance of actually being able to meet goals, get a sense of achievement and feel good about ourselves. In addition, the constant pressure that comes with expecting yourself to achieve the unachievable can leave you feeling constantly on edge, tense and stressed out, which can impact your well-being.
It can also reduce your mood. If your self-worth is based on achievement, setting unachievable goals leaves you feeling like a failure which can prompt low mood, frustration, worry, social isolation and depression.
Problems Related to Perfectionism
Behaviours that are related to perfectionism include;
- Struggling to make decisions – this can even include what to wear to work each day.
- Reassurance seeking – feeling you need to check with others that what you are doing is acceptable.
- Excessive organising and list making.
- Giving up easily – especially if you can’t pick something up “perfectly” on the first try.
- Procrastinating – motivated by a sense that you’ll not be able to complete the task to your satisfaction once you do start it.
- Not knowing when to stop or let go – in arguments, or when working on a task.
- Excessive checking.
- Hoarding – keeping everything in case you may need it in the future.
- Slowness – doing things slowly and deliberately to make sure it is done right.
- Avoiding situations in which you may “fail” – e.g. applying for jobs, starting courses of study, learning something new.
Can I be a Perfectionist in One Area of My Life but not Another?
Yes you can. It is possible to have unrelenting standards in one area of life (such as work) but not in others (such as health and fitness). Common areas where perfectionism flares up include work, study, housekeeping, close relationships, eating/weight/shape, grooming/personal appearance, sport and health and fitness.
The particular areas of our lives where we develop unrelenting standards are important to us and our self-worth, and are maintained by;
- Biased information processing (only paying attention to certain types of information)
- Unhelpful thinking styles
- Over-valuation of achievement
Identifying and working with these maintaining factors is the key to reducing the problematic behaviours. Sometimes it can be hard to do this on your own which is where a psychologist can help. A psychologist can teach you skills and strategies to get you out of the vicious cycle of perfectionism, of striving to achieve but never getting there because you keep moving the goal posts further away.
By Greta Neilsen
Greta Neilsen is clinical psychologist working in Bowen Hills in Brisbane who enjoys helping people free themselves of self-limiting beliefs and behaviours such as perfectionism. For more information or to book please see the main page at www.gretaneilsenpsychology.com.
Antony, M. M. & Swinson, R. P. (1998) When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, Ca.
Fursland, A., Raykos, B. and Steele, A. (2009). Perfectionism in Perspective. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.