What is perfectionism?
Most of us are familiar with the term ‘perfectionist’. Perfectionism is a personality trait that is not considered to be a personality disorder of its own, however, there is debate amongst theorists in the literature as to the definition of perfectionism.
Generally, perfectionism is accepted as a disposition in which anything less than perfection is unacceptable. Distinction has been made in research between self oriented perfectionism, other oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism.
How does perfectionism present?
Those of us who can relate to the pursuit of excellence, setting high standards, feeling motivated by accomplishment and taking joy in working hard might be wondering what the detriment to this could be. The problem with relentless perfectionism is that it is highly likely to be underpinned by intense fear of failure, self-criticism, and avoidance. In fact, the perfectionist may be so afraid of failure that they avoid engaging in tasks at all, for fear they may not complete them perfectly. These underpinnings may trigger unwanted feelings of shame, regret and embarrassment. All of which can potentially have a significant impact on mood.
In fact, research into perfectionism has shown links to a variety of psychological problems including depression, eating disorders, psychosomatic disorders and strong association with anxiety. If you are somebody who recognises strong perfectionistic traits in yourself and also struggles with your mood, there is a chance that one might be contributing to the other.
What are effective treatments for perfectionism?
Psychological intervention with a psychologist can help. Careful consideration of your own personal history will assist you and your therapist to develop an understanding of the origins of your perfectionism. From there, targets for intervention in therapy include addressing your individual contextual factors, examining avoidant loops that keep you stuck, working on self criticism, building flexibility of thought and creating lasting change. Principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are especially helpful working towards a loving compassion for yourself, away from fearful perfectionism.
What are some helpful tips for clients?
- Give some thought to contextual factors in your own personal history that may have influenced your ideas about perfectionism, and how these factors could be keeping you from moving on. For example, are there unrealistic expectations in your family? Are there aspects of your work environment that are problematic?
- Identify areas in your life in which you are so afraid to fail that you avoid starting at all. Find a way to transition into this activity. For example if you are avoiding starting work on an essay assignment, begin writing about something less threatening, such as your plans for the holidays, and transition into writing your essay plan.
- Begin to recognise when you are making harsh and critical self statements about yourself. Ask yourself if you would speak to a friend or your neighbour in this harsh manner? Will speaking to yourself in this way lead you to a happier life?
- Work on building flexibility in how you define yourself. Is there more to your self-concept than your pursuit of goals and your adherence to meeting standards?
- Set goals for yourself that are linked to your values, and aim to increase the frequency of behaviours associated with these goals over time.
Curran, T and Hill, A, 2019, Perfectionism is increasing over time: A Meta Analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429.
Kemp, J. The ACT workbook of perfectionism. Build your best (imperfect) life using powerful acceptance and commitment therapy and self-compassion skills. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Twohig, M. P., Levin, and Ong, O.W. 2021. ACT in Steps. Oxford, Oxford University Press.