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What is perfectionism and when is it a problem?

Most people would agree that having high standards and striving to do your best is a good thing. Some people may even describe themselves as a “perfectionist”, meaning that they strive for excellence. Indeed, being hard-working and ambitious can be admirable qualities. However, when we talk about clinical perfectionism, we're talking about something quite different.


Illustration of someone piling up tasks

Read on to find out how to stay on the healthy side of “perfectionism”.


What’s clinical perfectionism?


Clinical perfectionism isn’t about trying to do things ‘perfectly’ or doing your best. Clinical perfectionism is about a tendency to set excessively high standards and to be overly self-critical.


People with perfectionism will often strive for unattainable, unrealistic, or unreasonably high standards. This can be at the expense of other important areas of their life and involve huge personal sacrifices.


People with perfectionism tend to base their entire self-worth on their achievements and their ability to live up to the standards that they set for themselves. This can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety if the person feels that they have made a mistake or somehow fallen short.


They are often left feeling like nothing they do is good enough. Even minor errors can lead to intense self-criticism. Rather than being motivated by their goals, people with perfectionism often find themselves feeling stressed and miserable. Over time, this can impact someone's self-esteem and leave them feeling that they aren’t as competent or accomplished as other people.


People with perfectionistic tendencies can find themselves repeating unhelpful patterns of thinking and behavior, which can lead to a vicious cycle. See if you can recognize any of the following.


Perfectionistic thinking and beliefs

Here are some examples of perfectionist thinking and beliefs.


  • “Anything less than sticking to my diet perfectly is a failure. If I eat one biscuit, I may as well have eaten ten.”

  • “I always need to look perfect in front of other people.”

  • “If I don’t get a distinction, I don’t deserve to be on this course.”

  • “I seem to be the only person in this house who knows how to clean things properly.”

  • “If I don’t get everything right people will think I’m stupid.”

  • “I should always be productive.”

  • “I should continually strive to better myself.”


Perfectionistic behaviors

What does perfectionism look like in your daily life?


  • Procrastinating – being unable to make a decision or act due to a fear of failure.

  • Spending excessive amounts of time focused on achieving your goals at the expense of other important areas in your life.

  • Checking work excessively and redoing it until it is absolutely “perfect”.

  • Constantly comparing your achievements to others.

  • Always asking other people for reassurance on how well you're doing.

  • Avoiding doing things where you fear you might make a mistake.

  • Excessively organizing and making lists.


Understandably, people who think and behave in these ways often feel under stress, have problems with sleep and concentration, and can feel very tense in their bodies. Perfectionism has also been associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD and self-harm.


What causes perfectionism?


Perfectionistic behavior may be learned from our parents, peers or other role models. Additionally, perfectionism can be driven by a need for approval or fear of failure. Traumatic experiences can also lead to perfectionism as a way of avoiding further pain or discomfort.


How to overcome perfectionism

Step 1: Challenge perfectionistic thinking


In perfectionism, people tend to have lots of negative or critical thoughts about themselves. These thoughts tend to be automatic, meaning that they just pop into someone's head, and they are also often biased, meaning that they aren’t always very accurate.


It can help to recognize if you're doing any of the following unhelpful types of thinking:


Am I thinking in black and white?

This means seeing things as being either good or bad, or right and wrong, and missing the shades of grey in between. For example, if you don’t get the top mark in class, then you’re a failure. You're either the best or the worst.


Am I discounting the positive?

This means dismissing any of your successes and focusing on any mistakes. For example, you gave a great presentation but couldn’t answer a question someone asked. Afterward, you focus on the fact that you couldn’t answer the question and not the rest of the presentation that went well.


Am I putting unreasonable pressure on myself?

This means feeling that you “should” be doing this or that you “must” do that. For example, you might think “I should never make mistakes’’ or “I must always be the best”.


Am I being overly self-critical?

This means beating yourself up if you don’t achieve the unrealistic standards you have set for yourself. For example, you call yourself “lazy” if you don’t meet your sales targets in work, despite having worked flat out for the past month.


If you recognize some of these types of thinking, it’s likely that your thoughts aren’t always very accurate. It can be helpful to try and come up with a more objective perspective. You could ask yourself the following questions:


  • “What would I say to a friend or family member in the same situation?”

  • “Is there another way of seeing this?”

  • “Will this still matter in a few months' time?”


Example

Negative thought

More objective perspective

I failed to meet my sales targets because I’m lazy and rubbish at my job

I worked really hard. I can’t always meet my targets – no one else does. My boss is always pleased with me. I put too much pressure on myself.


Step 2: Reduce perfectionistic behaviors


In order to meet their very high standards, people with perfectionism tend to use behaviors like excessively checking things or procrastinating. Unfortunately, these behaviors can increase anxiety and reinforce any beliefs about needing to get things done “perfectly” or to avoid making mistakes at any cost.


It can be helpful to try and reduce these behaviors by following the tips below.


Set realistic goals

By definition, perfectionists often set unrealistic goals for themselves. Aim to set achievable goals that are challenging but not impossible.


Take breaks

Perfectionists often feel the need to keep pushing themselves, which can lead to burnout. Taking regular breaks can help to reduce stress and recharge.


Allow yourself to make a mistake

Perfectionists often fear making a mistake or not doing something “perfectly”. Try to confront these fears by allowing yourself to make some mistakes. For example, show up 10 minutes late for something or send a routine email without checking it first. Was it as bad as you feared?


Step 3: Learn to relax


People with perfectionism can feel tense in their bodies throughout the day. By learning and practicing techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and mindful breathing, you can help to lower your overall tension and anxiety levels.


Progressive muscle relaxation

This relaxation technique can help you release the tension in your body. Feel free to skip any of the steps if you have an injury in that area.

  • Find a comfortable place to sit down.

  • Focus on your breathing, being mindful to take steady relaxed breaths. Inhale slowly, then exhale slowly.

  • Hands. Turn your attention to your right hand. Slowly, clench your hand into a fist as tight as you can, feeling the tension in your forearm. Hold for a few seconds and release. Repeat with the left hand.

  • Arms. Bend your right arm and tense your bicep as tight as you can. Hold for a few seconds and release. Repeat with the left arm.

  • Eyebrows. Lower your eyebrows in a frown and then raise them as high as you can. Hold for a few seconds and release.

  • Eyes. Squeeze your eyes tightly shut and scrunch up your face. Hold for a few seconds and release.

  • Mouth. Open your mouth as wide as you're able. Hold and release.

  • Neck. Gently roll your head back so you're looking at the ceiling. Tense your neck muscles and release. Gently, roll your head back up.

  • Shoulders. Lift your shoulders up towards your ears, tensing your shoulder muscles as you go. Hold and release, dropping your shoulders back down. Next, circle your shoulders to release any leftover tension.

  • Chest. Take a deep breath filling your lungs and chest with air, and hold for as long as you can. Release and exhale.

  • Stomach. Tense your stomach muscles across your midsection as tightly as you can. Hold and release.

  • Hips and bottom. Squeeze your bottom muscles together as tight as you can. Hold and release.

  • Thighs. Tense the muscles in your thighs as tightly as you can. Hold and release.

  • Legs. Put your legs out straight and bend your feet towards you, tensing your calf muscles. Hold and release.

  • Feet. Curl your toes towards the floor, tensing your feet muscles. Hold and release.


Mindful breathing

The aim of mindful breathing is to find a state of calmness, where we can allow thoughts to come and go without judgment.

  • Sit in a comfortable position keeping your back reasonably straight.

  • Gently focus your attention on your breathing, noticing your breath coming in and going back out. Don’t make any effort to change your breathing.

  • Notice any sensations in your body as you breathe, like your tummy lifting up and down. Imagine a balloon inside your tummy, inflating and deflating as you breathe.

  • Thoughts will likely pop in and out of your mind. It’s ok for them to be there, don’t judge them, just let them go and return your focus of attention to your breathing.

  • When your attention drifts off to something else, a sound, a thought or a feeling, simply notice and bring your attention back to your breathing. It doesn’t matter how many times this happens, just bring your attention back.


Try to practice mindful breathing every day for a few minutes. The more you practice the better you will get at it. Mindful breathing can help you feel present in the moment, and relieve anxiety and stress.


If your perfectionistic tendencies are having a negative impact on your life, it can be helpful to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be especially effective in helping to manage perfectionism.


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