What Is Perfectionism?

Perfection is a philosophy. It is a mode of being where one holds excessively high standards for oneself/others/life. Perfectionists can also be excessively critical when these standards aren’t met.

A person’s perfectionism tends to show up in areas of life that they value. If a person highly values their appearance, they may exercise, diet and check their appearance excessively in an attempt to attain the ‘perfect’ body, for example.

Common behaviours of perfectionists include:

  • Workaholism – working long hours to feel that one you have done ‘enough’

  • Procrastination – putting off important tasks for fear of making a mistake

  • Avoidance – avoiding activities where you may fail

  • Not delegating – doing everything yourself for fear that others won’t do things ‘right’

  • Dissatisfaction – having a gnawing sense that things are never ‘good enough’

  • Indecision – taking too long to make (‘perfect’) decisions

  • Checking – repeatedly and excessively checking to see things are ‘correct’, ‘right’, ‘acceptable’

What Causes Perfectionism?

At the core of perfectionism is the belief that “I must do well, and win the approval of others, or I am worthless”. This is one of the three core beliefs that can get us into trouble. Why? Because, as a human being, you are imperfect and you will fail from time to time. Demanding perfection of yourself/others/life is a recipe for anxiety (in situations where you might fail), and depression (at times when you fail).

People also take on habits from those around them. If you were raised by critical, perfectionistic parents, you may have taken on their standards for yourself.

How Is Perfectionism Treated?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective for treating perfectionism. It works by helping people to change their perfectionistic mindsets and behaviours. CBT for perfectionism helps people to:

  • Decide if perfectionism is worth it – Identifying the pros and cons of perfectionism can help to clarify if it’s worth pursuing. Asking whether perfectionistic behaviours are working to give you the life you want.

  • Pursue excellence, not perfection – Unlike perfection, excellence is a high standard that can actually be achieved. Identifying the difference the two can be helpful. This can aid people in finding an approach allows them to achieve their goals, without subjecting themselves to the excessive stress and self-criticism that perfectionism tends to fuel.  

  • Challenge thoughts – We usually don’t think to challenge our thoughts. We tend to just accept them as the truth. Perfectionistic thoughts like “I must perform well”, “it’s either perfect or rubbish”, “I am a failure if I fail” can seem like reasonable things to believe. It’s only when people write these thoughts down, and begin to question their validity do they realise that “I would like to perform well, but I never have to”, “most things exist on a continuum, and are rarely black/white, good/bad”, and “I am a human being that succeeds and fails sometimes”.

  • Set limits – Striving for perfection can paralyse people. Setting limits can help this. Giving oneself deadlines for making decisions can get things moving. Limiting the amount of time spent thinking, checking, or working on something can help free up time for other important pursuits too.

  • Experiment with making mistakes – Perfectionists live to the belief that ‘I must do well’. They work hard at hiding, escaping, or avoiding mistakes because of this. However, this cuts them off from seeing that, whilst it is nice to do well, we never have to. Mistakes are unfortunate but tolerable. Imperfections can be disappointing but are never catastrophic and unbearable. Experimenting with making mistakes can help perfectionists to be more comfortable with them, and less self-critical. Experiments could involve: a person eating slightly more than they usually would (if there), deliberately leaving a typinng error in an email, scheduling more free time for fun activities, doing things without elaborate prior research and planning.

Learn about perfectionism. Knowledge is power. Understanding perfection helps people to get control of it. The following video discusses perfectionism in more depth:

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I am a Clinical Psychologist in North Sydney who treats perfectionism using CBT. Please get in contact to learn more.

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