Monday, June 23, 2014

Perfectionism vs. Healthy Striving

by: Dr. Marie-Pierre Fontaine-Paquet, Psy.D., C.Psych.


In this post, we will define perfectionism vs. healthy striving, describe when perfectionism is a problem, and we’ll offer strategies for overcoming perfectionism.


Defining Perfectionism 


Wishing to do things well and having high standards is often adaptive and can help you to pursue and achieve your goals in life. This healthy striving can be contrasted with perfectionism, which is a felt need to do things perfectly and to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable. To help clarify the distinction between healthy striving and perfectionism, here are some characteristics of each one.

Characteristics of Healthy Striving:


  • Striving for high but achievable standards that result in feelings of satisfaction and increased self-esteem
  • Motivated by enjoyment of the process, enthusiasm, enjoyment of what you do, and desire for success and mastery
  • Efforts (not just results) give you satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment
  • Self-esteem is not based on accomplishments and performance
  • Rewarding self or others for good performance
  • Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment


Characteristics of Perfectionism:


  • Repeatedly setting goals for yourself that are beyond reach and reason and not being satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Motivated by fear of failure, obligation or duty
  • Driven to be the best, but unable to enjoy accomplishments
  • Feeling that your sense of self-worth and acceptance is based on accomplishments and performance
  • Criticism and judgment of self or others
  • Seeing mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
  • Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment


When is Perfectionism a Problem?


Like many things, perfectionism can be viewed as a problem when it interferes with a person’s wellbeing and happiness, relationships, or functioning at school or work. This is not always easy to know. If you struggle with perfectionism, the high standards you hold for yourself or others may be so long-standing and ingrained that they may even be unconscious and outside of your awareness. You may have a self-critical internal voice that constantly judges and berates you for not being “______” enough (fill in the blank: smart, hardworking, rational, strong, attractive, thin, sexy… and the list goes on), but you may be more aware of ensuing feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, inadequacy, anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness. You may also be aware of feelings of anger, frustration and resentment when others fail to live up to your expectations, and perhaps this has caused difficulties in your relationships.

Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours can place an individual at higher risk for depression (see blog ‘Depression: How Your Thinking Can Lead to the ‘Blues’’) and anxiety. Research shows that perfectionism is associated with several psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, worry about being judged by other people, excessive anger, body image and eating disorder problems, and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism


Building Awareness:

The first step to change is to first build awareness of what it is that you want to change. Since perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours can be automatic and unconscious, this may not be an easy task! One way of identifying perfectionistic thoughts is to notice situations in which you experience emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration or shame, and to reflect on thoughts and interpretations that may be contributing to these feelings. You can also pay attention to situations in which you find yourself engaging in  perfectionistic behaviours (e.g., checking and rechecking your work, spending too much time cleaning, excessive organizing and list making, difficulty making decisions, procrastinating, exercising excessively to stay thin, etc.), and notice what you may be thinking and feeling in these situations.


Evaluating Your Standards

Here are some questions to consider when evaluating whether your standards are serving you well or whether you might benefit from challenging or altering them:
  1. The excessiveness of the standard (e.g., Can this goal be met?)
  2. The accuracy of the belief (e.g., Is it true that this standard must be met?)
  3. The costs and benefits of imposing the standard (e.g., Does it help me to have the belief or standard?)
  4. The flexibility of the standard or belief (e.g., Am I able to adjust my standards and change my beliefs when necessary?).

If you determine that a particular standard cannot be met or that the costs of having a particular standard or rule outweighs the benefits, you may want to consider loosening your standards for that particular issue. If you are unsure, you may consider asking the opinion of a friend or loved one whom you trust.



Making Changes to Perfectionism:

Rather than being unwilling to accept anything less than perfection, remind yourself that no one is perfect nor do we need to be in order to be worthy, lovable and valuable as human beings. Think about what is good enough and possible in your current life situation rather than how things should be in order to be perfect. Work on developing self-compassion in place of harsh self-criticism and perfectionism, and more compassion for others. Coping statements like “It’s okay to make mistakes” and “Nobody’s perfect” can be helpful in challenging perfectionistic thinking. People who struggle with perfectionism tend to go to great pains to control many different aspects of their lives, including their own behavior, the behavior of other people, and the environment in which they live. Because you often cannot control or predict things that occur, it can be helpful to find ways to tolerate some degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in your life.


If perfectionism is a problem for you, chances are that the high standards you hold for yourself or others are long-standing and ingrained. The thought of giving up these standards may be very frightening for a number of reasons, and changing these long-standing patterns can be difficult. You may find that it is too difficult to overcome your perfectionism alone or with the help of your family and friends. A psychologist can help you better understand your perfectionism and the role it plays in your life, and support you in changing these long-standing patterns. A psychologist can also support you in addressing problems often associated with perfectionism, including anxiety, depression, anger, eating disorders and relationship problems.


This blog is based on some parts of the book: “When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism” by Antony & Swinson (1998)


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