Breaking the Hold of Perfectionism
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
For some people, the term perfectionism simply refers to a healthy sense of striving for personal excellence, for doing their absolute best. For others, including myself, it is an entrenched pattern of critical thinking that is often self-sabotaging and interferes with achievement of our personal goals, including maintaining healthy relationships, career success, and general life satisfaction. The truth is that perfection is subjective; one person’s idea of perfection rarely match another person’s ideal. So there is no such thing as a perfect human being. Many of us feel pressure to meet unrealistic or even impossible standards, whether set by ourselves or others. A whole host of problems are the result when we have these unrealistic expectations and then judge ourselves for not being perfect.
What is perfectionism?
So, what exactly is perfectionism? One of the best definitions I have seen for perfectionism is that it is “…characterized by the setting of inflexible and/or unattainably high standards…the inability to take pleasure in one’s performance, and uncertainty or anxiety about one’s capabilities” (Enns et al., 2002). Although high standards are a part of perfectionism, it also involves a sense of hopelessness for reaching these standards (Benson, 2003). Perfectionists often can’t perform a task unless they know they can do it completely and perfectly as measured by their own standards. From a clinical perspective, perfectionism is very different from striving to be better than the person you were yesterday.
Often our perception of things can become distorted, and we misinterpret situations or things people say or do based on our expectations or self-beliefs. A common form of distorted thinking is catastrophizing, in which we imagine the worst-case scenario and then become convinced that it will definitely happen. This type of thinking maintains anxiety or even increases it.
Perfectionism involves distorted thinking, including a tendency to overgeneralize perceived performance failures, magnify negative aspects of performance, selectively attend to perceived personal flaws, and discount positive information (Corrie, 2004). Underlying many of these tendencies is due to all-or-nothing thinking, such as believing you are either an absolute success or an absolute failure. Some examples of perfectionistic self-statements include: “In order to be good enough, I have to work hard all the time;” “If I struggle with anything, it means I am weak;” “I have to be perfect or else I’ve failed;” “If I can’t do it perfectly, I shouldn’t do it at all;” and “I only succeeded because I was helped.”
Brown (2010) has found that perfectionism is commonly used by people to protect against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame. Dougherty (n.d.) suggests that perfectionism also can be an attempt to avoid all rejection, criticism, and failure, and that at its heart is a person’s desire for love and acceptance from others and ourselves. In an attempt to defend our egos against pain or distress, however, we sabotage our basic need for love and acceptance from being met, along with stifling our goals and dreams.
Types of perfectionism
Three basic forms of perfectionism have been identified, and they are based either on the target of which perfection is expected and the source of the expectation. These include self-oriented perfectionism, others-oriented perfectionism, and socially-prescribed perfectionism (Hewitt and Flett, 1991). Self-oriented perfectionism is setting excessively high standards for yourself and engaging in overly critical self-evaluations while others-oriented perfectionism is imposing excessive importance on other people’s faults and scrutinizing and criticizing them harshly. Socially prescribed perfectionism is the tendency for an individual to try meeting the expectations and standards set by the other people or that they believe other people expect of them. Each of these types has their own associated problems that can contribute to personal suffering and mental health problems.
Where does perfectionism come from?
Several commonly identified factors have been found to contribute to the development of perfectionism. Three of the known most powerful factors include: (1) experiencing abuse or neglect in childhood; (2) parents or other caregivers with excessively high standards; and/or (3) the unrealistic expectations presented to us by mainstream media in their narratives of the “perfect life.” Although the first three may not always be a factor for every person with perfectionism, the powerful effect of the media influences everyone to some extent. When the three are combined, the level of perfectionism can be debilitating to a person and lead to issues such as eating disorders, chronic anxiety, and major depression.
Abuse or Neglect in Childhood
Numerous studies have linked perfectionism with early various forms of mistreatment or exposure to chaotic circumstances during childhood (Enns et al., 2002; Soenens et al., 2005; Roxborough et al., 2012; Rice et al., 2014). A common factor is a lack of a secure attachment with parents or primary caregivers, in which case a child is unsure of or fails to receive the caregiver’s unconditional love and support. This is a primary need for children and, as they desperately strive to gain this love, they are continually measuring their self-worth by having or not having this love consistently (Good Therapy, n.d.). For example, if a parent is always abusive or neglectful, the child will learn that they are never worth the parent’s love, that they only deserve it if they are the “perfect” child.
Similarly, if the parent is loving one minute and then abusive or neglectful the next, the child will learn to not trust the parent to have unconditional love for them and so again learn that they are not worthy of that love. Even when emotional neglect is not intentional, such as prolonged absences of parents or caregivers, it can lead to the child developing an insecure attachment because the child learns that their unconditional love is not always available. Unconditional love is a basic need and while all children actively strive for it, those with insecure attachment will feel they can never attain it no matter how hard they try, and such beliefs can be carried into adulthood and generalized to other people such as partners and friends, despite the person knowing it is not logically true.
Excessive Parental or Other Caregiver Expectations
Another common factor in perfectionism is when parents or other caregivers hold unrealistically high expectations of the child and never satisfied with the child’s accomplishments or with their personal traits (e.g., body weight, personality, etc.) (Soenens et al., 2005; O’Gorman, 2015). As part of this dynamic, parents may induce excessive guilt in the child, invalidate the child’s concerns and feelings, threaten to withhold love, or suggest that reaching almost unattainable goals defines the child’s worth. In his study, Stein (2016) similarly noted a tendency toward chronic or constant self-criticism in children whose parents praised only exceptional behavior, spent a lot of time fault-finding, or, in extreme cases, were verbally or physically abusive to punish the child for not meeting their expectations.
Underlying these parental behaviors, however, is often their own perfectionistic beliefs that sometimes have been carefully cultivated by our society, especially for girls and women. In other words, parents learn what society expects and unconsciously teach their children to do the same. For example, a mom’s actions are observed by her daughter, who then consciously or unconsciously models mom’s behaviors (O’Gorman, 2015).
Cultural Expectations in the Media
When we watch television or use the internet, we are bombarded by media messages that tell us how we “should” look, work, feel, and generally live life by our current cultural ideals. One of the most obvious example of this is the ideal of physical attractiveness, for both women and men, presented to us on commercials and advertisements, in magazines, on social media, on television, and in movies (Malkin et al., 1999; Dittmar, 2005; Aubrey, 2010).
These messages have a particularly strong influence on teenagers who are struggling to form their own identity and “fit in,” but they affect everyone and parents and friends can repeat and reinforce these messages. With peers in general, and especially on social media, this messaging can also take the form of bullying to distinguish those that fit the ideal of “attractive” or “cool” from those that do not. When we are inundated daily by images and words that tell us how far from perfect we are, and people we know and care about repeat these messages, we start to believe that we have to become perfect in order for people to like us, to be successful, and to be happy.
How is perfectionism unhelpful?
Although not in itself a psychological disorder, unhealthy perfectionism in general has been found to be a vulnerability factor in a number mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, interpersonal problems, and even personality disorders (Benson, 2003; Akay and Bratton, 2017). Researchers have analyzed the relationship between self-concept and perfectionism and found that as perfectionism increased, self-esteem decreased, one factor contributing to many of the problems listed above (Bencik, 2006).
Compounding the problem of low self-esteem is the tendency for people to deny aspects of themselves that they don’t like, which Jung (1970) referred to as the “shadow self.” Our anxiety about these denied aspects of ourselves can drive us to try ever more relentlessly to hide and feel shame about our imperfections.
Unique issues also are associated with the different types of perfectionism. For example, socially prescribed perfectionism, or believing that others will value you only if you are perfect, has been closely associated with depression, eating disorders, social anxiety, insomnia, and other problems, including suicide (De Azevedo, et al., 2009; Egan et al., 2011). There are also problems with others-oriented perfectionism, including the tendency to demand perfection from friends, family, co-workers and others -- this can be particularly damaging for intimate relationships. Self-oriented perfectionists can do well in situations of low stress, but are more likely to become depressed, anxious, or even suicidal when things go wrong (Benson, 2003).
Some signs of perfectionistic behaviors in children include: looking overly serious about their schoolwork or other tasks; being easily frustrated when things do not go just as they would like or do not meet their unrealistically high standards (resulting in a lot of crumpled pieces of paper, etc.); avoiding or hesitating to engage in activities that might result in a “mess” of some sort; and/or exhibiting extremely self-critical behaviors and psychological symptoms such as anxiety, anger (toward themselves and others), and depression (Bencik, 2006; Akay and Bratton, 2017).
Perfectionist children may see themselves as failures because they excessively focus on mistakes or negative outcomes and disregard all their past achievements or positive qualities. These perfectionist behaviors and thinking patterns, if not addressed in a healthy way, can affect them the rest of their lives.
What Can I Do?
There are several paths you can take toward greater wellness that is not limited by perfectionism, depending on what is the best fit for you. These include starting your own personal practice of mindful meditation, seeking spiritual guidance, yoga, or by getting the help of a professional such as a mental health counselor or life coach. You may decide to use several of these approaches, but whichever ones you choose, they will be oriented toward greater self-acceptance and compassion (for yourself and others). There is research specifically supporting the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation (Corrie, 2004; Santanello and Gardner, 2007; Stein 2016) and mental health counseling (especially cognitive behavioral therapy; Egan, et al., 2011; Lo and Abbott, 2013) for decreasing the negative impacts of perfectionism and its underlying distorted thinking.
Mindfulness Meditation and Self-Compassion
One powerful tool we can use is mindfulness meditation, a meditative practice in which you focus your flow of thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations in the present moment without judging them as good or bad. The increase in nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts and feelings allows you to have a more objective, less self-critical view of your experiences. By focusing on the present moment, you also can more easily let go negative feelings about the past and worries about the future.
A concept to focus on in meditating is developing self-compassion. While maintaining motivation to grow and strive toward our fullest potential, we can treat ourselves as we would treat someone else we care about—with kindness, understanding, and the awareness that everyone is imperfect but still inherently worthy. Using self-compassion can help us accept our imperfection while reinforcing our value as human beings. Below are some ways to use self-compassion in your daily life to counter perfectionism (Nieves, n.d.; Corrie, 2004):
Imagine how you would treat others who found themselves in a similar difficult situation. Ask yourself what would you say? What recommendations would you make? How would you offer comfort? Now speak to yourself in the same compassionate tone, using the language you would use with someone you care about.
Practice positive self-statements such as: “I am still worthy, regardless of how I perform or what I achieve;” “something can be worthwhile, even if it is not perfect;” and “experiencing something as a challenge means that I am growing rather than failing.”
Remember that most of the things you have suffered over are universal in some way and that no one is absolutely perfect.
Focus your attention on your effort rather than results.
Practice mindfulness meditation daily. Set aside time for formal practice, even 10-15 minutes, in which you focus on the present moment with breath awareness and nonjudgmental attention to thoughts and feelings.
Show compassion to others. This can reinforce your own self-compassion and decrease self-criticism.
Mental Health Counseling and Life Coaching
When our perfectionism is so entrenched that it’s difficult to break free of it on our own, we may need help from a mental health professional. The type of service that would be most appropriate depends on the severity of its impact on our lives. For example, life coaching might be the most appropriate if you want to learn ways to achieve a more balanced and realistic view of yourself and to hold you accountable for your progress on these goals.
If you are having difficulty with simply functioning in your life, mental health counseling could be more appropriate. In addition to helping you create personal goals and helping you be accountable for progress, mental health counseling also can help you to gain deeper insight into the origins of your perfectionism, to increase your awareness of your feelings and to connect them with your thoughts, and to learn emotional coping skills and how to apply them in your daily life.
If you decide that you need help in breaking the hold perfectionism has over you, if its impacts to your mental and emotional wellness or to your relationships are too distressing, please consider seeking help from a mental health professional so you can live the life that you choose and achieve balance and contentment. Regardless of the wellness path you choose, professionals at Mindful Ways to Wellness offer services that can help you on your journey, including mental counseling, life coaching, individual and group yoga, meditation and Tibetan bowl sound therapy. For more information on our services in St. Petersburg, Florida, or to make an appointment, please click here.
References and Further Reading
Aubrey J. (2010). Looking good versus feeling good: An investigation of media frames of health advice and their effects on women’s body-related self-perceptions. Sex Roles, 63:50-63.
Akay, S. and S. Bratton. (2017). The effects of Adlerian Play Therapy on maladaptive perfectionism and anxiety in children: A single case design. International Journal of Play Therapy, 26(2):96-110.
Benson, E. (2003, November). The many faces of perfectionism. APA Monitor on Psychology, 34(10):18. Retrieved at http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.aspx.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing: Center City, MN.
Corrie, S. (2004). When “perfect” clients receive “imperfect” therapy: A cognitive approach to working with perfectionism. Counseling Psychology Review, 19(2):3-13.
De Azevedo, M., Soares, M., Bos, S., Gomes, A., Maia, B., Marques, M., Pereira, A., and A. Macedo. (2009). Perfectionism and sleep disturbance. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, 10(3):225-233.
Dittmar, H. (2005). Introduction to the Special Issue: Body Image—Vulnerability Factors and Processes Linking Sociocultural Pressures and Body Dissatisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 24 (8), Special Issue: Body Image and Eating Disorders: Sociocultural Pressures and Perceptions, pp. 1081-1087.
Dougherty, E. (n.d.). The one thing you need to know to overcome perfectionism. Retrieved from https://tinybuddha.com/blog/one-thing-need-know-overcome-perfectionism/.
Egan, S., Wade, T., and R. Shafran. (2011). Perfectionism as a transdiagnostic process: A clinical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 31:203-212.
Enns, M., Cox, B., and I. Clara. (2002). Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism: Developmental origins and association with depression proneness. Personality and Individual Differences, 33:921-935.
Good Therapy. (n.d.). Perfectionism. Retrieved online at https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/perfectionism.
Hewitt P. and G. Flett. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3):456–470.
Jung, C.G. (1970). Psychology and Religion: West and East. Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 11. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.