The desire for perfection is a double edged sword. Striving for perfection can provide drive and encouragement to be your best. On the flip side, it can create frustration, disappointment, fatigue and stress as you continue to strive for the unachievable. Perfectionism can take many forms and can impact people differently and in all areas of life, particularly professional or academic work, and may affect parenting, physical appearance and social relationships.
Perfectionism presents itself as having unrealistically high standards accompanied by the tendency to be overly critical in your evaluations of yourself or others (Flett & Hewitt, 2002). For example, you may find that making mistakes is unacceptable. As a result, you may be excessively critical of yourself when inevitably mistakes are made. Often, beneath the surface of perfection is grounded in a need to be liked, accepted and valued.
Perfectionism can be obvious or subtle. From the person who works 7 days a week and stays up late till the work presentation is ‘just right’ to the mother who feels immense guilt at not providing enough home-schooling support to her kids during lockdown. Such standards can create stress. When you feel that you aren’t meeting your goals or that things aren’t going as planned, the perfectionist will work harder and sleep less. Stress often shows up as muscle aches, headaches, low energy and irritability. It can lead to a poor work life balance as you continue to strive to achieve more which often results in missed opportunities for pleasure and enjoyment due to the overwhelming fear of not getting enough done. You may miss spending time your kids, or enjoying the sunshine for fear we will not keep up with home schooling. Relationships often suffer due to an inability to prioritise these and give them the time they need.
Perfectionism can be caused by a variety of reasons. As complex beings there is rarely one single cause. Martin (2019) suggests that this may be a combination of personality traits, childhood experiences, demanding or perfectionistic parents or perfectionistic expectations that are received from the media or culture. What is important to consider is that if your unrealistic expectations are not working for you, you can work to change this to a more helpful and balanced view.
Strategies to manage perfectionism
Martin (2019) recommends several strategies to assist in managing perfectionism. Some of these include:
Practice self-compassion- Talk to yourself as you would your best friend. Talk with kindness, forgiving yourself and giving comfort. This can start with something as simple as giving and accepting compliments.
Acknowledge your fears- People with unrealistically high standards often feel the need to please others. A fear of failure, fear of criticism or a fear of rejection are common driving forces behind perfectionism. Identifying these fears are an important step in being able to effectively challenge them.
Reframe your thinking- Unhelpful thinking patterns act to maintain the behaviours we set up to hold our fears at bay. Noticing your self-criticism when it comes up is a great first step in shifting your thinking. Unhelpful thinking often involves shoulds and musts. “I should be getting 100%” “I must try harder.” Instead, try asking yourself if you are setting impossible expectations and if you are, what would be a more realistic goal.
Be mindfully present- The endless pursuit of perfection can lead to overwork and an inability to rest and relax because being busy is how we feel valued. This leads to feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Look at how you spend your time. Identify what it is that you value and ensure that you are spending time aligned with these values each day. Slow down, tackle one task at a time, giving it focus and energy it deserves.
Spend time on yourself- Often, those with unrealistically high expectations spend little time on themselves. This results in an empty cup where there are no reserves left. Ask yourself what fills your cup. Is it sitting having a coffee, catching up with friends, reading a book, going for a walk? Identify these things that fill your cup and feed our soul and dedicate time to these tasks. Start small and build on these over time.
Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Mallinger, A., & DeWyze, J. (1992). Too Perfect- When Being in Control Gets Out of Control. Random House Publishing Group.
Martin, S. (2019). The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.