We live in a world where we are encouraged to be the best: to achieve high standards in the spheres of work, home, relationships, even our hobbies. But when does striving for perfectionism turn from something that is motivating and positive, to something that negatively impacts on our mental health? Here are some cognitive behavioural strategies that are used in therapy to help people understand and minimize the negative impact of perfectionism:
1. Question your standards.
We all have internal standards for attainment and beliefs about how things should be. Using these key questions can help you to determine if your standards are excessively high:
- Do I expect other people to meet the same standard as I set myself?
- What is the impact on me if I fail to meet my standard?
- What would be the impact if I were to drop this standard?
2. Consider where your perfectionism may stem from
Often perfectionism stems from early life experiences. Perhaps you grew up in an environment in which love and acceptance were dependent upon meeting academic or other types of achievement. Another common contributory factor is when young people develop academic achievement, or perfectionist behaviour around their looks for example, as the only or main contributor to their sense of self-esteem or sense of control.
3. Examine your thoughts
A key strategy in CBT is to examine the types of thinking patterns that you might inadvertently fall into. The following thinking ‘biases’ may be particularly common in people who struggle with perfectionism:
- Black & white thinking – this is where something is either good or bad, there is no grey in between. Therefore if something isn’t a complete success, you label it as a failure.
- Selective abstraction – this is where you only notice the negatives and discount the positives
- Overgeneralisation – this is where you make sweeping conclusions based on one or two experiences
4. Experiment with new behaviour
Although it can feel scary, the best way to make a change is to act differently. So try reducing your standards a little. You might try spending less time proof reading and fine-tuning something you have written, putting less hours into a piece of work, leaving in a typo, going out without looking perfect, not responding immediately to an email etc. This will usually result in some level of worry or anxiety and it’s important to just sit with that feeling until it subsides. And then look at what happened: were there disastrous consequences to reducing your standards? Could you tolerate the feelings you experienced through not doing something perfectly? Think about what the impact would be of being able to tolerate a lower set of standards: on yourself as well as those close to you.
Is perfectionism impacting on your wellbeing? Is it time for you to make a change? Hopefully these strategies will help, but perfectionism, like other personality traits, can be long-established and hard to change. So don’t be afraid to seek help from someone trained to help with such issues.