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Is perfectionism interfering with your life?

It is part of human nature to want to do things well, and this drive can have a number of important benefits for psychological health.  It provides motivation to persevere in the face of set-backs and obstacles. Setting realistic goals helps people achieve things they value, and accomplishing goals provides a sense of mastery which in turn produces healthy self-esteem.

However, what happens when the goals set are not achievable, or only achievable at great cost? This situation is no longer one which enhances self-esteem. Instead it has become a source of stress, distress and feelings of failure. It has become perfectionism.

Striving for high personal standards

There are three main components of perfectionism, each producing negative outcomes. The first is a rigorous striving for extremely high personal standards and goals. This can produce feelings of being stressed, on edge and tense, and can result in a preoccupation with thoughts about performance. As soon as a goal is met, 

perfectionistic people will often re-set a new, even more demanding goal. In this way successes are largely discounted, and no sense of mastery is achieved. Self -esteem suffers as a result, and depressed mood and sleeping difficulties are common.

Over-valuation of achievement 

The second component of perfectionism is an overvaluation of achievement, the way in which self-worth depends very heavily, if not exclusively, on perceived ability to achieve. Overvaluation of achievement can result in a driven life that is usually narrow, with little room for spontaneity. Areas of life that are not achievement-based become restricted, and it becomes difficult to engage in activities that are not measured in terms of performance but which usually provide pleasure and relaxation, such as reading novels, listening to music or spending time with friends.

Impacts on performance and other areas of life

Third, perfectionism involves continuing to pursue highly demanding standards despite ongoing adverse effects on actual performance and on other areas of life, such as important interpersonal relationships. Perfectionism is self-defeating, and, paradoxically, often actually impairs performance.   Intense fear of failing to meet standards can result in excessive time being taken to complete tasks, repeated checking of performance, and procrastination, in which tasks are put off or avoided because failing to do them well is so aversive. Non-perfectionistic people recover from mistakes more quickly and find it much easier to absorb feedback than perfectionists, who tend to increase their already excessive self-expectations in response to negative feedback or mistakes.

 

Together, these components produce a cycle of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and behavioural urges such as urges to put off, avoid and/or overwork. Imagine a situation in which a person has completed a report for work, but has procrastinated and so struggled to get it done on time, or has overworked to such an extent that fatigue has reduced the quality of the finished product. Both these situations produce worry thoughts such as “this won’t be good enough”, with accompanying feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as physical sensations such as a racing heart and sweaty palms. When the report is returned with some changes requested, worry thoughts about poor performance become more intrusive and extreme, producing more intense emotional responses and physical symptoms. If, on the other hand, the report receives very positive feedback, the expectations for future endeavours are increased, and the cycle of worry thoughts, distressing emotions and physical symptoms again draws tighter. These spirals can result in exhaustion and burnout, and can reduce energy, vitality and enjoyment of life.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has a range of approaches to help with distressing thoughts, behaviour urges and upsetting physical sensations, such as those which occur in the cycle of perfectionism. ACT provides techniques to " unhook" from the upsetting thoughts associated with perfectionism and to bring life more in line with personal values.

 

Please also refer to my article on ACT for perfectionism and About Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

If you struggle with perfectionistic tendencies that seem to interfer with the quality of your life, I invite you to contact me to make an appointment. We can together consider whether Acceptance and Commitment Therapy would be a useful treatment approach for you.