It’s common to hear the word “perfectionist” used to compliment those who strive for excellence through scrupulous attention to detail. From a psychological perspective, however, perfectionism can be cause for concern when an individual compulsively strives toward standards that are unobtainable and that come at great cost to their mental health.
Psychiatrist David Burns describes perfectionists as those who set and pursue impossibly high standards and who measure their self-worth entirely in terms of their achievements. Those who struggle with perfectionism are very critical of their own (and sometimes others’) mistakes, and tend to regard any misstep as unacceptable. Perfectionism is associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and relationship problems. It is also related to specific cognitive habits, such as “all or nothing” thinking (“If I don’t get the highest grade, I’m a failure), a tendency to catastrophize (“One wrong move and my career is down the drain”), and “should” statements (“I should be able to handle this”).
The irony is that perfectionism ultimately hinders a person’s ability to achieve their full potential, and at its worst it can be paralyzing. A person struggling with perfectionism may find that they take a long time to finish tasks, have difficulty settling on decisions, spend too much time organizing, need a lot of reassurance, check details excessively, and fail to delegate. It makes sense that when the standards for completing a task are impossibly high, it can become overwhelming to even start working toward it in the first place, which can lead to chronic procrastination.
There are a number of strategies that can help to mitigate perfectionism:
Evaluate Your Standards
Ask yourself: Are my standards achievable for me? Do they get in the way of my ability to achieve my goals? (i.e. starting or finishing projects; allowing others to contribute; meeting deadlines). When your standards are too high, they actually hinder performance, but when they are realistic and achievable, you set a clear pathway toward your goals.
Perfectionists usually believe that lowering their high standards will be intolerable. Experiment with testing whether slightly lower standards lead to the very negative outcome you may expect. Practice making small mistakes or taking small risks (i.e. inserting a typo into an essay; leaving a dirty plate in the sink; going to the store without makeup). Then assess the outcomes against your original belief. You may find that the negative consequences are minimal or negligible, and that the benefits of allowing some room for error are significant.
Unlike landing a plane or performing surgery, most things in everyday life will not have dire consequences if they are not done perfectly (i.e. writing an e-mail, washing the dishes). When inflexible standards for these ordinary tasks are imposed on others, it can cause upsetting conflicts in our relationships. In these situations, consider finding a compromise that’s “good enough.” The acronym GEMO, which stands for “Good Enough, Move On,” can be a useful reminder that our standards for a particular task should be commensurate with its importance.
Ask for Help
Many people who struggle with perfectionism have difficulty asking for help, and often feel alone in their distress. Working with a qualified therapist to challenge the thoughts and beliefs that support perfectionism can have a major impact. Another resource that we often recommend to our clients is the book When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism by Martin Antony and Richard Swinson.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.