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The Dark Side of Perfectionism & Overcoming Perfectionism

Many people would consider being called a perfectionist a compliment. Most of us feel that having high standards and striving for excellence are admirable qualities. Setting high standards for one’s self can help us to achieve goals, persist when the going gets tough and pursue excellence. While healthy striving is related to high achievement at work and school as well as good psychological health, unhealthy perfectionism can strongly contribute to anxiety, depression, difficult interpersonal relationships and low self-esteem and is strongly linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Perfectionism, therefore, is not a healthy pursuit of excellence, but a disorder that is persistent, compulsive and unremitting; it is accompanied by constant critical self-evaluation.

Perfectionists set standards that are high beyond reach and most never feel a sense of pride in a job well done because they always believe they should have done better – perfectionism has been called “the tyranny of the shoulds”.

The final outcome of the perfectionist’s work or performance is viewed by the perfectionist as flawed, filled with mistakes, imperfect. Nothing is ever good enough. The perfectionist’s self-imposed standards are rigid and expressed as implicit rules. They tend to be personally demanding and their self-worth is highly dependent on their achievements and successes.

Perfectionism usually begins in childhood and is thought to be the result of biological tendencies coupled with environmental influences. These influences can consist of parents, teachers or coaches who are overly demanding or lavish excessive praise, parents who give love and attention as a reward for the child’s achievement as well as modeling of perfectionism by adults.

perfectionistPerfectionistic children, teens and adults tend to:

  • Become very anxious about making mistakes
  • Have difficulty completing tasks
  • Become easily frustrated or angry
  • Give up easily
  • Have a persistent fear of being embarrassed or humiliated
  • Be overly thorough and careful when completing a task
  • Have meltdowns or temper tantrums when things don’t go perfectly
  • Refuse to try new things because they are afraid of making a mistake
  • Procrastinate

Perfectionists often engage in rigid “black-and-white” thinking. Things are either all good or all bad, perfect or a total failure.   Perfectionists tend to “catastrophize” and view mistakes and possible outcomes as much more disastrous than they are likely to be.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches individuals with perfectionism to objectively evaluate the consequences of making mistakes with cognitive restructuring and behavioral experiments.

CBT will encourage you to try the following:

  1. Practice not being perfect!
  2. Give yourself permission to make mistakes
  3. Find humor in situations – don’t take everything so seriously
  4. Change your unhelpful, negative self-talk to realistic, rational self-talk
  5. Remind yourself of all the negative effects of perfectionism
  6. Reward yourself when you’ve stepped outside of your comfort zone

And remember, there is a big difference between the healthy and helpful pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy and unhelpful striving for perfection.

The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually afraid you will make one.
Elbert Hubbard (1856 – 1915)


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