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 o