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Perfectionism

Perfectionism is often praised as being a desirable trait and something that can be adaptive. The word “perfect” has many positive connotations, but it ignores the reality that humans are prone to making mistakes. Perfectionism is self-defeating vicious cycle and sets an unrealistic, unreachable standard. Time and time again, perfectionism has been linked to a long list of mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia and suicide. People with perfectionism experience higher levels of shame, guilt and anger as well. They also tend to achieve less and stress more than regular high achievers.

SIGNS YOU MIGHT BE A PERFECTIONIST

Most people engage in perfectionism from time to time. People who are nearly full-time perfectionists may feel the need to achieve perfection constantly. They might also:

  • Avoid a task unless they know they can do it perfectly.
  • Focus on end results and chase goals. There is less focus on the process of growing and learning or completing a task to the best of their ability.
  • Procrastinate. People with perfectionism may not want to begin a task until they know they can do it perfectly.
  • Take an excessive amount of time to complete a task that does not typically take others long to complete.
  • Exhibit more self-criticism than high achievers and over-focus on imperfections.
  • Use all-or-nothing thinking – there is nothing in between perfect and failure.

Often times perfectionists may believe they will not be successful if they were not such a perfectionist. There is no evidence that perfectionists are more successful than their non-perfectionistic counterparts. In fact, there is evidence that given similar levels of talent, skill and intellect, perfectionists perform less successfully than non-perfectionists. Perfectionists might also believe they have to overcome all obstacles to achieve success. Perfectionism often leads to procrastination, avoidance, and loss of focus, often leading to not accomplishing the task at hand.

Types of Perfectionism

There are a few styles of perfectionism. You may find that a few of the types below resonate with you, or you may find that you fall into one subtype below.

Other-Oriented Perfectionists

Perfectionists who are other-oriented—as in, they hold others to high standards and can be critical and judgmental—can leave destruction in their wake. It’s hard to build working relationships under these conditions, which is one reason this variety is so detrimental.

Self-Oriented Perfectionists

Self-oriented perfectionists are organized and conscientious. They set high standards for themselves in their lives and careers, but are able to go after their goals. High self-oriented perfectionism is generally associated with the most “adaptive” traits correlated with greater productivity and success, including resourcefulness and assertiveness. They show higher rates of positive emotion, motivation.

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism

Someone in this category tend to be very self-critical and feel immense pressure to be the best and worry others will reject them. Socially prescribed perfectionism applies to people who are held to high cultural or societal standards and who strive to meet these unrealistic goals. For example, students may be held to high academic standards by their parents.

LEARNING A NEW APPROACH

At some point, most people who are perfectionists eventually realize this way of interacting with the world, one’s self and others is no longer helpful. Perfectionism often leads to burnout, stress, anxiety and depression. Healthy striving is a process of finding balance between damaging overachievement and adaptive high performance. Healthy strivers enjoy the process of growth no matter the outcome and can bounce back easily from disappointment and setbacks. They confront feelings of uncertainty, fear, discomfort and accept help along the way. Mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth and learning. Below are a few tips on how to move towards healthy striving and break away from the perfectionism cycle:

  1. Start to identify unhealthy, all-or-nothing thinking (using absolute terms, such as never or ever, perfect or failure). View actions and thoughts with curiosity and compassion.
    • Ask yourself, “Is this true or not. Am I really a failure because I did not get an A?”
    • Catch yourself using absolute words and rethink them as "sometimes" or "every now and again."
    • Acknowledge that life is filled with uncertainty and you don’t have to have all the answers all the time. You can say, "I am not sure, I need to think about that more."
    • Am I considering what is going okay or well. Ask yourself, "Is it really as bad as I feel it is? How might others see it? Are there other factors that I am discounting here?"
  2. Bring your focus on setting more realistic goals.
    • Break down larger goals into more tangible, mini goals and celebrate small successes along the way.
    • Ask yourself, "What would happen if things did not work out perfectly? Would it lead to the punitive consequences I fear or imagine?"
  3. Remind yourself that you are human and will inevitably make a mistake, as will others around you.
    • Talk to a mentor or someone you admire about their road to success and ask them about the setbacks that happened along the way.
    • Make a list of lessons you learned from your own mistakes so you can see that there is in fact, value from setbacks and mistakes.
  4. Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect.
    • When you make your own list of costs and benefits, you may find that the costs are too great.
  5. Set strict time limits on each of your projects. When the time is up, move on to another activity.
    • Learn when to stop. If a task is taking up too much time, ask yourself, "Does this matter in the bigger scheme of things?"
    • Set time limits and try to stick to them. Sometimes if you are trying to do too much, especially when you are tired or studying for a long period of time, you will actually find you are unable to retain anymore information and need a break.
  6. Learn how to deal with criticism.
    • Think about what criticism means to you. Does it feel like a personal attack? Do you become immediately defensive?
    • Try to strive for being more objective about the criticism, and about yourself.
    • Remind yourself that if you stop making mistakes, you also stop learning and growing.

If perfectionism is interfering with your life and you would like to talk to someone at the Counseling Center, you can schedule an appointment at counseling@drexel.edu or call 215.895.1415. The Counseling Center offers individual, group, and several workshops including a Self-Compassion workshop.

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