William Macaulay

Counsellor & Psychotherapist

Perth, Western Australia

Phone 0401 316 977

for enquiries or appointments

Perfectionism

Striving to be your best or for healthy growth and achievement are considered positive traits that increase your chances of success in life. Perfectionism, on the other hand, involves the relentless need to be or appear to be perfect, or believe that it is possible to achieve perfection. There is a tendency to set standards that are so high they either cannot be met or are only met at considerable cost. It usually involves harshly judging your self-worth based mostly on your ability to achieve such unrelenting standards. You typically believe that anything short of perfection is considered unacceptable.

 

Impact on health and wellbeing

 

Perfectionistic behaviour may result in a person experiencing adverse physical and mental health issues such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, depression, chronic fatigue, suicidal ideation, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

 

Typical perfectionistic behaviours

 

Perfectionists typically engage in some of the following active and avoidance behaviours.

 

Active behaviours:

  • Repeatedly checking for flaws or mistakes

  • Excessive planning, organising and list-making

  • Not knowing when to stop

  • Correcting others

  • Fixating on achieving a flawless end result

  • Reassurance seeking - asking others to check their work to ensure it is acceptable

  • Engaging in excessive self-criticism

  • Slowness - taking an excessive amount of time to complete tasks in comparison to others

 

Avoidance behaviours:

  • Giving up easily

  • Avoiding situations in which one’s performance is tested

  • Procrastinating - not wanting to begin a task until they know they can do it perfectly

 

Areas of life perfectionism may impact

 

Sometimes, perfectionism can affect only one of the following areas, while other times, it may impact multiple areas:

  • Work and Study

    • may take longer than others to complete a task

    • may avoid starting a task you do not feel confident in

  • Close Relationships

    • may place unrealistic standards on others which may impair the relationship

  • Sport, Health and Fitness

    • the competitive nature of sport may encourage or exacerbate perfectionism

    • may involve a compulsion to stick to a rigidly healthy diet

    • may lead to an eating disorder or exercise addiction

  • Environment

    • may involve spending a significant amount of time and energy keeping your immediate surroundings tidy and clean

  • Physical Appearance and Hygiene

    • may take hours choosing what to wear

    • may spend hours on grooming and personal cleanliness

Causes

 

There are many factors that may contribute to whether perfectionism develops. A few include:

  • Feelings of insecurity, inadequacy or a fear of disapproval from others. A typical assumption may become entrenched: “If I’m perfect, I won’t be rejected, ridiculed, abused – I’ll be loved and accepted”.

  • Ongoing mental health issues, such as anxiety or excessive stress.

  • Having a parent who models perfectionistic behaviour or expresses disapproval when the child’s efforts do not result in a perfect outcome.

  • People with a history of high achievement sometimes pressurise themselves to achieve these prior high standards continuously.

 

Techniques to challenge perfectionistic thinking

  • Challenge polarised “all or nothing” or “success or failure” thoughts. Find middle ground and continuously remind yourself that everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. Remember, lowering your standards does not mean having no standards.

  • Identify and challenge unhelpful, rigid and unreasonable rules by questioning whether these rules are realistic or reasonable or achievable. Recognise the negative consequences of having or keeping these rules. Develop more realistic and flexible rules. Plan and practice implementing the adjusted rules.

  • Pay attention to your internal thoughts. Replace negative self-evaluations with more positive ones.

  • Experimentation. Select an activity that you’re particularly perfectionistic about and reduce the amount of effort put into the activity. Afterwards, reflect on what happens when you behave differently.

  • Try a new hobby. Focus on enjoying the new activity at your current beginners/low skill level and pay attention to the learning process rather than the end goal.

  • Consider placing a higher value on a variety of personal qualities when evaluating your self-worth such as kindness, loyalty, sense of humour, companionship, skills, knowledge, abilities and quality of relationships.

 

Counselling for perfectionism

 

The above strategies might not work for everyone. Working with a therapist can ensure that you receive compassionate support and guidance as you practice letting go of your perfectionistic behaviour.

 

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT):

Cognitive behaviour therapy is an evidence-based effective treatment for perfectionism. CBT involves working with a professional therapist, who helps perfectionists challenge and evaluate the rationality of their thoughts and beliefs. Once identified and challenged, they can be replaced by more helpful and balanced thoughts and beliefs that increase self-worth and reduces perfectionistic behaviour. CBT also typically involves some graded exposure to 'imperfect' behaviours and the implementation of safety behaviours to facilitate coping with these experiences.

 

Support

 

If your perfectionistic tendencies, such as excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations, are causing you distress, it is important to seek help. Talking to a counsellor can assist in achieving considerably healthier thought patterns, standards and behaviour.

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