What do we mean when we talk about perfectionism? Does it really involve being ‘perfect’ and is it even possible to be one hundred percent perfect anyway? The different types of perfectionism, as well as perfectionistic behaviours and beliefs, will be considered next.
Perfectionism describes the relentless striving for extremely high standards that are personally demanding. In fact, to someone else the standards set may be considered to be unreasonable in the given context. It also involves judging self-worth based largely on the capacity to strive for and achieve such high standards. Finally, perfectionism includes continuing to work towards the demanding standards despite negative consequences and great personal cost.
Leading Researchers in the field of perfectionist behaviours have identified three distinct types of perfectionism. Self-Oriented Perfectionists hold unrealistic expectations for themselves, Other-Oriented Perfectionists set unrealistic standards for other people and Socially Prescribed Perfectionists believe other people, such as parents or coaches, have unrealistic expectations of them. All three types of perfection can be harmful to wellbeing and productivity.
Perfectionism can also be viewed as something positive. It is often seen as the pursuit of excellence, setting high standards, and working hard to challenge oneself. Although having high standards and goals may help us achieve things in life, sometimes these standards get in the way of our happiness and can actually impair performance. For example, if a person’s self-worth depends on their achievements, then they push themselves to attain unrealistically high standards. When they make mistakes, they judge themselves harshly and criticise themselves when they fail to meet their standards. This harsh judgement and negative criticism thus affects their self-worth and general wellbeing.
The excessive drive to achieve ever-higher levels of performance can be self-defeating. As harsh judgement and self-criticism increases, a firm belief in self-efficacy and one’s ability to succeed decreases. Reduced agency and self-determination leaves the person with little chance of meeting their goals. This kind of pressure is likely to cause feelings of agitation and stress. As previously stated, pursuing these personally demanding standards can have a significant impact on self-worth and wellbeing, and can additionally lead to frustration, worry, social isolation, depression and a persistent sense of failure. This is the ‘perfectionism perplexity’.
Behaviours to monitor
Perfectionists also engage in a range of unhelpful behaviours to make sure they continue to meet the high standards they set for themselves. These can include, procrastinating, avoidance, checking, correcting, list-making, slowness, and more. These behaviours sustain perfectionism because if they keep behaving this way, they won’t have the opportunity to test out whether their perfectionistic thinking is true. These behaviours may be time consuming, done at the expense of other important activities, and may even delay or interfere with attempts to meet the standard set. Some common types of perfectionistic behaviours include:
- Reassurance seeking, (for example, asking others to check your work to ensure it is acceptable).
- Excessive organising and list making, (for example, repeatedly writing and re-writing lists of the tasks desired to be completed in the day).
- Procrastinating, (for example, putting off starting an assignment for fear that it won’t be good enough).
- Not knowing when to stop, (for example, arguing a point over and over, long after others have lost interest).
- Struggling to make decisions in a timely manner, (for example, not being able to decide what to wear to work each morning).
- Giving up easily, (for example, giving up an activity after two lessons due to not being able to keep up with the teacher even though nobody can).
- Hoarding, (for example, keeping your bank statements for 20 years just in case they may be needed).
- Avoiding situations where there is a risk of ‘failure’ or ‘rejection’, (for example, not applying for jobs for fear of rejection).
Beliefs and assumptions to monitor
Perfectionists’ self-esteem is based heavily on their ability to attain extremely high standards. Consistent with their belief in the importance of achieving these high standards, their lives are often directed by a number of assumptions designed to ensure that they meet their high standards. Some beliefs and assumptions commonly held by perfectionists include:
- Fear of failure, (for example, “I must do things perfectly”, or “If I try, then I will only fail”).
- ‘Shoulds’ and ‘musts’ style of thinking: placing unreasonable demands on self and others, (for example, “My house must be tidy at all times”).
- All-or-nothing, ‘black and white’ thinking: seeing only extremes and no shades of grey, (for example, “There is a right and a wrong way to do things”).
- Catastrophising: blowing things out of proportion, (for example, “if I make a mistake the business will fail”)
- Jumping to conclusions: assuming that we know what others are thinking, or can predict the future.
- Constant checking, (for example, “I must weigh myself several times a day to make sure I’m not gaining weight”).
- Control, (for example, “I must be prepared for anything”).
Six simple steps
To challenge unhelpful beliefs and assumptions about perfectionism, here are six steps you could take:
- Identify your unhelpful belief or assumption.
- Work out where it comes from or how it developed.
- Question whether your belief is realistic or reasonable or achievable.
- Recognise the negative consequences of having and keeping this belief.
- Develop a more helpful belief or assumption.
- Plan how you would need to act in everyday life to put this new helpful belief or assumption into practice.
Want to learn more? Book an appointment with one of our psychologists or visit our clinic and wellbeing store in Bulimba.