My heart was beating out of my chest as I waited nervously for the results of a difficult graduate exam. How did I do? Did I pass? Did I fail? As the professor handed out the scores, he gave me a wink and told me he wanted to speak to me after class. I hesitantly unfolded the paper and was instantly surprised- 110%! I immediately calmed down and told myself that my professor simply wanted to tell me how fabulous I did. Little did I know, he really wanted to point out the costs of my never-ending pursuit for perfection.
Being a perfectionist is exhausting. For the perfectionist, life is a constant series of tests and exams that prove or disprove your worth. Perfectionism is an unremitting quest that never seems to stop nagging at you. Do it better. Do it faster. Failure is not an option, nor is anything less than 110%. Research indicates a link between perfectionism and procrastination due to fears surrounding failure, high stress levels, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, to name a few (Flett, 2002).
Perfectionists often link their self-concepts to the idea of success. This idea moves beyond the concept of self, as it also has implications for how you view and relate to others. For instance, do you worry that others will disapprove or be disappointed if you fail to perform at the highest possible level? Do you experience feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment if you make a mistake? For many, fears of rejection and disapproval rob one of taking a step back and recognizing accomplishments, especially since success is rarely seen as good enough in the first place.
With some time and effort, one can begin to recognize ways to alter perfectionistic tendencies and improve overall well-being, as demonstrated below.
1) Explore all-or-nothing thinking. Perfectionists tend to think that things are all good or all bad. For instance, you might miss one point on a test and believe that you are a failure. Get curious about whether things are really all good or all bad, as well as about fears of failure.
2) Look at the “shoulds” in your life. This revolves around feeling that others want you to perform well or do something a certain way. For many, “shoulds” take precedence over individual needs and wants leading to feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness, or resentment. Instead, focus on your own desires and what you can do to accomplish your own personal goals. Ask yourself who you are trying to please as you engage in certain tasks or make life decisions.
3) Set time limits for tasks. For example, give yourself three hours to write a short essay and move on. This will help decrease procrastination as well as help curtail perfectionistic tendencies.
4) Examine your standards of success and think about when good enough is good enough. For example, play with the idea of giving a task 95% instead of 110%. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings as you experiment with your standards of success. Usually, we find that things do not fall apart when things are not perfect.
With a little time and practice, you can begin to tackle the stresses related to your perfectionism. Remember, you don’t have to decrease your perfectionism perfectly!
Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical,definitional, and treatment issues. In G. L. Flett, P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory,research, and treatment (pp. 5-31). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10458-001
By Chrystal Rahmani, Ph.D., Psychological Assistant (PSB 37860)
Supervised by Bruce Brodie, Ph.D. (PSY 6574)