Perfectionism - Counselling Newsletter

Published: 6 Dec 2018

Perfectionism might sound like an admirable trait, but it's often a cause of anxiety, depression and ruptured relationships. It's human nature to do something as well as you can. It makes you feel worthwhile, elevates you in the eyes of friends, family and colleagues. But if you feel you have to do things absolutely perfectly, and second best just won't do, then you could be setting yourself up for failure – and the depression and anxiety that follows.

Perfectionism is a common character trait, particularly in people in environments where there's fierce competition or a culture of bullying – some corporate cultures, and in some schools and universities where there a strong emphasis on status and achievement. It's also common in people who come from families where the parents are authoritarian and love is conditional – given out as a reward for good behaviour or withdrawn as a punishment. Parents who push their children to succeed academically usually want the best for them however this pressure may have the opposite effect.

A mild degree of perfectionism can be a healthy thing. It can drive you to achieve things you wouldn't otherwise achieve and it can give you the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. But it can also be a source of stress, anxiety and depression.

Dissatisfaction guaranteed

Striving for perfection is a recipe for failure, because it can't be attained. Then, when you invariably fail, you experience feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, anger, frustration and sadness. People who are perfectionists can't simply enjoy day-to-day living because their time is taken up with worrying about their supposed shortcomings. Sometimes it can actually be counter-productive, leading to procrastination and inaction, because people remain stuck on one particular task, trying to get it perfect and never moving on to the next task. Perfectionism leads to procrastination. Often perfectionist people demand perfection in others, who fail to live up to the ideal, causing rifts in relationships. Perfectionists have trouble finding and sticking with a partner, because that person can never live up to their high expectations. So when does perfectionism become more than a useful character trait and becomes destructive?

Warning signs are when you:

  • Worry about mistakes and don't give yourself credit for your successes.
  • Can't enjoy something you've done because there are other things you need to do at which you might fail.
  • Regret things you've done in the past that haven't turned out as you'd have liked.
  • Frequently criticise and find fault in others.
  • Have trouble adapting when circumstances change or when you aren't able to control a situation.

Chilling out

Perfectionism is a difficult character trait to overcome because perfectionists are so intransigent and rigid they often don't see themselves as needing to change. To overcome it you need to be able to:

  • Forgive yourself for mistakes or failings.
  • Be prepared to accept imperfections in others.
  • Set realistic and flexible time frames for the achievement of a goal.
  • Set ‘time’ deadlines instead of ‘task’ deadlines. Give yourself a time by which to finish a task rather than continue to work on it until it is ‘perfect’ - as this will never happen.
  • Reward yourself for progress, even when progress is slight. The new goal is PROGRESS not perfectionism.
  • Don't try to be the best, the brightest or the star performer.
  • Be prepared to be flexible and to change plans when circumstances change.

What can help in psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps a person focus on the self-defeating nature of perfectionism, helping them to be more flexible and accepting imperfections in their lives as being normal.

The Center for Clinical Interventions provides a free online workbook to help people overcome perfectionism…

Extract from ABC, The Pulse;

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