Everybody wants to do well in school, work, and life in general. For some people, this desire manifests in the form of simply working towards a happy life filled with family and friends, while others may find themselves striving for “straight A’s” or a perfect extracurricular record. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high; however, for some people, a strong drive to succeed can develop into a maladaptive pattern of perfectionism. Many people don’t consider perfectionism to be a problem (in fact, “I’m a perfectionist” is probably the most common strategic answer given by job candidates asked in an interview to name their greatest weakness). In reality, though, this personality trait can ruin lives.
You might be a perfectionist if you regularly find yourself setting unreasonably high or even impossible standards for your work. Other hallmarks of clinical perfectionism include chronic high stress, procrastinating and/or giving up easily (you may put off or write off doing a task because you are subconsciously or consciously afraid of not living up to your own standards), taking an extremely long amount of time to carefully complete tasks, stressing out over small details, fear of disappointing others, and refraining from trying new tasks or experiences.
Past research has found perfectionism to be correlated with suicidality; in a 2007 study, the close relatives and friends of people who had recently committed suicide were interviewed and asked to describe their lost loved ones. Unprompted, over half of them used the word “perfectionist” in their descriptions. It’s important to understand that perfection is not in and of itself a psychological disorder. However, it is a classic symptom of generalized anxiety disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and has been linked to several other forms of psychological issues such as eating disorders.
If you notice perfectionistic tendencies in yourself that are causing you distress or preventing you in any way from living your life to the fullest, there are several strategies you can try to combat the problem. As always, if you feel a high level of persistent distress or you feel helpless, hopeless, or have the urge to harm yourself or others, be sure to seek the help of a Registered Psychologist right away.
Teach yourself to notice your own thoughts and behaviour:
Sometimes, fixing a maladaptive behavioural pattern is as easy as learning how to recognize when you are about to engage in that behaviour. If your professor assigns you a ten-page paper due in two months and you find yourself looking in advance for reasons not to start the paper until the last possible day, try to stop yourself and ask yourself why you are engaging in this thought pattern. Try to figure out if it’s because you really just don’t like writing papers, or because you’re afraid you won’t get a good enough mark even if you try your hardest. Interrogating the reasons behind your own behaviour can be a powerful catalyst for awareness and change.
Think about the worst that could happen:
This advice might sound counterintuitive, but taking the time to logically imagine the worst thing that could happen if you don’t live up to your own standards can be very helpful in the quest to rid yourself of perfectionism. For example, if you regularly spend five hours cleaning your house every day, ask yourself what would happen if you stopped doing that. Thinking logically, the answer would probably be something like “well, my house would be dirtier”. Continue down the path of interrogation, then, and ask yourself “yes, and then what?”. This exercise can help you get to the root (generally false or exaggerated) beliefs that may be driving your perfectionism. For example, you might have a root false belief that your partner will see you as unworthy if you can’t keep the house clean.
Step back and widen your perspective:
Next time you’re stressed out about whether or not everybody at your friend’s wedding will think you’re a failure if your maid of honour speech isn’t funny enough, take a step back and ask yourself whether this issue will still matter to you at all in a year, or ten years. You can also try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and asking yourself how they might view the situation. Chances are, you wouldn’t care whether your friend’s speech had ten jokes or two jokes — and likewise, she’ll certainly feel the same way about yours.
Employ positive affirmations:
Sure, “nobody’s perfect” might be a tad overused, but taking the time to find and regularly bring to mind a realistic mantra that speaks to you can help you to cut down on your perfectionistic thinking. Sayings like “It’s okay if not everybody likes me,” “Good enough is good enough,” and “Making mistakes is human” are good places to start..
Learning to change your thought patterns is the same as acquiring any other skill: it takes practice. Exposure therapy is a therapeutic technique often used by psychologists to help patients with severe phobias, but it can also be helpful for decreasing perfectionism; unsurprisingly, it involves exposing oneself repeatedly to a feared stimulus. If you fear not being perfect, practice living your fear. Turn in a product at work that involves a typo. Arrive somewhere ten minutes late. Don’t do the dishes for a few days. Focus your practice in the realm(s) of your life in which your perfectionism tends to manifest – for example, school, work, or social situations. With exposure, you will learn that your most feared consequences of not being perfect most likely won’t occur, and this may help you come to stop fearing imperfection.
Above all, it’s important to remember that just because you’ve ‘always’ been a perfectionist or you feel that others have come to expect perfection from you, it’s never too late to take steps to free yourself from the stresses of trying to be perfect and to start changing your life. For more ways to decrease the negative impacts of perfectionism in your life, or to look more deeply into whether perfectionism is causing you harm, book an appointment with one of our Registered Psychologists at LifeWise Counselling.