We know who we are. We work hard, do things right, and hold ourselves to high standards, even at times when we know others don’t. We may think we are perfectionists. But I recommend not claiming an identity as a perfectionist but instead recognize that, behaviorally, we tend to work hard to make things just right. Maybe too hard sometimes.
How Much Is Too Much?
“Everything in moderation,” say the sages. But how much striving-for-the-best is helpful, and when do we cross the line into too much? Like everything, it probably depends on the context.
In many situations, we are rewarded for careful attention to detail. This is part of what drives the work that gets many people admitted to top universities and selected for their dream jobs. When we hold high standards for ourselves but allow for minor mistakes and are satisfied with a job done well, we are probably engaging in what psychologists call adaptive perfectionism.
However, these strivings can become a problem when we are consistently challenged beyond our means and/or when we are working so hard to avoid failing that we stay anxious and fearful about making the next mistake, never really enjoying the satisfaction of a job done well (enough). At this point, we might be engaging in maladaptive perfectionism.
It is indeed a cruel twist of everyday logic that we who want so much to do things right are told that our striving means we’re doing things wrong, that we’re “being perfectionists.” Across research studies, though, perfectionist tendencies have been shown to be a risk or reinforcing factor for anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
Researchers have identified at least two ways that people with perfectionist tendencies may think differently from others.
The first way involves thinking processes. Experts report that people with perfectionistic tendencies are more likely to think in black-and-white terms; to overgeneralize, blowing up one small imperfection into a broad assumption of incompetence; to show less ability to tolerate frustration; and to selectively attend to information that confirms their existing negative beliefs. They also tend to ruminate, or play thoughts over and over in their heads.
The second way involves the content of their thoughts. Perfectionist cognitions refer to fast, involuntary thoughts, such as “Nothing less than perfect will do,” “I’m stupid for making a mistake,” and “The higher the standards, the better.” The more often these self-defeating kinds of thoughts pop up, the more likely someone is to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. It doesn’t seem to be having high standards that can be the problem. Instead, it may be more about holding to those standards in a rigid way.
Decrease Perfectionistic Tendencies
Studies on how best to treat perfectionistic tendencies are surprisingly sparse. However, researchers are beginning to report good results with cognitive-behavioral techniques, whose underlying assumption is that how we think (our cognition) influences how we feel and how we behave. Therefore, if we change our thinking, we can probably change our feelings and behavior.
Because people with perfectionist tendencies are likely to overgeneralize and base their self-worth largely on how excellent their work is, remind yourself explicitly that you are a whole person with many dimensions, qualities, and values. Although you’d like to do outstanding work, you are not defined by how close to perfect your work is.
Tune into your thoughts and self-talk throughout the day. What are you telling yourself about what you’re doing? That you absolutely have to get this task done perfectly? That everyone will notice if you make even a small mistake? That only a stupid person would mess up? When you notice self-defeating thoughts such as those, it’s time to talk back.
Counter the self-talk. If you’re telling yourself you have to be perfect, come up with a replacement message. Tell yourself, “I can work hard and do a reasonably good job, like most people aspire to. If I mess up, I’ll learn something in the process and know more about what to do next time.”
Question the evidence for self-defeating beliefs. For example, did the world crumble the last time you made a small mistake? Have you seen someone else make a little mistake? Did you instantly decide that person was stupid? Try to get outside yourself and think about what you would say to a friend who was directing those unkind thoughts to himself or herself.
Create some evidence by doing what psychologists call behavioral experiments. For instance, if you believe that your house must be 100% spotless and clutter-free, purposely leave part of a room just a little messy. Leave a few dishes in the sink or a few dog toys on the floor before a visitor arrives. What happened? Did your guest freak out and accuse you of being a slob? Probably not, but test it out yourself. Or let’s say you’re working on an internal report for a few of your coworkers, and as you print out the final draft, you find a typo or realize that the margins don’t match on all the pages. Instead of reprinting the whole thing, take a deep breath, let it go, and see what happens. Do your workers scold you for your shamefully messy work? Probably not, but taking risks like this and collecting the evidence yourself can be very powerful in challenging perfectionistic beliefs.
With that in mind, it’s important to begin setting more realistic goals. Practice “intelligent neglect” and aim for doing a job at about 80% capacity instead of 100%. Imagine what you could be doing with the time and energy you would otherwise have spent on that 20%! Focusing tightly on small details that most people probably wouldn’t notice anyway is costing you opportunities to do other, more rewarding things. You could be sleeping an extra 20 minutes, slowing down for lunch, snorkeling, or writing a surprise love note.
Practice these tips above and see where you are in a month or two. For more help, see this excellent, free home-study course.