The Perils of Perfection – Peter Walker
Striving for excellence, beating our personal best, getting to our ideal weight, giving it our all, never giving up! These widely used statements conjure images of elite athletes, heads of industry, professional musicians, prestigious scientists. These figures are held up as a model to follow in order to thrive, achieve fulfilment and reach our potential. And what in the world could be wrong with that? For some people, nothing at all. But for a substantial number of us, striving for perfection contains the kernel of chronic dissatisfaction, worthlessness, depression and anxiety.
Perfectionism is the tendency to have high and unrelenting standards. These can be solely directed at the self or can generalised to others. Perfectionism can apply to one area of our lives (Eg weight, academic performance, social performance) or affect a broad range of pursuits. It has long been recognised that this personal style can make one more vulnerable to anxiety, depression and eating disorders. It commonly affects high achievers in our society and often goes unnoticed.
What causes and maintains perfectionism?
It is likely that a range of factors contribute to the development of perfectionism, including someone’s intrinsic sensitivity and early environments where approval and love was conditional on achievement of certain standards
Once operating, perfectionism is maintained by a fear of failure and exhausting striving for success. Perfectionistic individuals evaluate themselves in terms of a set of rules or standards. These rules tend to be dichotomous, the individual either meets them or does not. The content of their thinking reflects this” all-or nothing” approach, seeing the world in terms of “should’s”,” musts” and “oughts”.
A strong value is placed on self-control. This will often take the form of limiting pleasure or “indulgence” not directly related to the pursuit of a goal. If goals are attained they are then often altered due the perception that the task was not difficult enough, leading to a certain relentlessness.
Thinking biases reinforce this behaviour. Perfectionistic individuals will focus on any evidence of failure and overgeneralise this. This results in the quite striking contrast between some individuals’ objective success and their belief in always being on the edge of ruin.
What can you do about it?
The first step in reducing the impact of excessive perfectionism in your life is accepting that it is present and that it is worth working against. Treatments then focus on adapting one’s self-assessment from being excessively narrow (“I am worthwhile if I lose 5kgs”) to include a broader range of criteria (“I am a husband, son, athlete, performer, friend, painter”). Experiments can be set that test out someone’s belief that catastrophe will ensue if they produce work that is below their standards. I also like to encourage my clients to practice being “half-arsed” when they see an opportunity. This might mean sending an email that has not been edited and may contain spelling mistakes, present a talk with minimal practice or exercise without measuring the effort or outcome. Most of my clients find this anxiety provoking and aversive, but it improves their overall flexibility and often affords them the opportunity to relax.
Frost, R.O., Marten, P., Lahart, C. & Rosenblate, R.(1990). The Dimensions of Perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449-468.
Riley,C., Lee, M., Cooper,Z., Fairburn, C.G., Shafran, R.(2007). A randomised controlled trial of cognitive-behaviour therapy for clinical perfectionism: A preliminary study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 2221-2231.
Shafran, R., Zafra, C. & Fairburn, C.G (2002). Clinical Perfectionism: a cognitive-behavioural analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 773-791.