Dealing With Perfectionism and The Anxiety It Can Cause
At Good Therapy SF, many of our clients identify as perfectionists. By nature, perfectionists tend to be driven, high achievers. Often, these perfect standards create an expectation that goals will be met effortlessly and without mistakes. As a result, the perfectionist mindset creates a sense of distress, anxiety, or anger.
Ironically, even though clients are aware of these unrealistic standards, they continue to hold themselves accountable. Frequently in therapy, perfectionistic clients will say anything less than their goal is “lowering expectations.”
In her book on Perfectionism, Sharon Martin discusses this issue, and uses a CBT approach to prescribe solutions. The following descriptions of perfectionistic personality traits, resulting areas of impact, and types of thinking are from her workbook.
Personality Traits of Perfectionism
Self Oriented Perfectionism: The unrealistic, unattainable standards are placed on oneself. The pros to this approach are being goal oriented and driven. Unfortunately, it comes at a cost of noticing every flaw, ruminating about them, and beating yourself up over them.
Other Oriented Perfectionism: The unrealistic, unattainable standards are placed on others. The pros to this approach are limited to never feeling like you were fooled, because everyone will let you down. The obvious cons are feeling disappointed and angry at others for not living up to your expectations.
Socially Prescribed Perfectionism: The unrealistic, unattainable standards are placed on yourself by others (sometimes true) or you believe they are placed on you by others (usually true).
Note: Do not worry if you feel all three of the types apply to you. No one falls exactly into each type. In fact, most people tend to have a combination of all three. Perfectionism and anxiety go hand in hand.
Areas where Perfectionism can have an Impact
Professional Accomplishments: These individuals are the “workaholics” and are strongly driven by promotions, winning the biggest account, and financial success.
Parenting: The expectation is that you and your partner will be the perfect parents. Often, you want others to see that for you, parenting is fun and easy. These expectations are also placed on your children, and it’s not usual to demand perfection from them as well.
Body, Weight, or Physical Appearance: There is a high preoccupation with physical appearance and being judged on what you look like. The expectations prevent you from ever feeling thin, tall, toned, or attractive enough.
Academic Performance: In school, the goal is to have a GPA higher than 4.0 and be class valedictorian. There is a strong belief that future success is dependent upon academic success.
Athletic Abilities or Fitness: Being fit or playing sports are not enjoyable activities. They are areas where excellence is demanded. As a result, you are highly competitive, highly critical of yourself and your team, and often push yourself beyond the physical limits of others.
Physical Environment: You expect your home and office to be arranged and cleaned perfectly. You feel there is nothing wrong with being a “neat freak” and feel distressed or overwhelmed when things are not in their proper place. Often the need to keep your space orderly takes priority over other necessary tasks.
The Perfect Life: The need for others to see how your life, family and self appear to be perfect. You want your home to look like it belongs in a magazine, your children behave impeccably, your clothes are designer labels, and your marriage or relationship is picturesque.
People who have perfectionistic thinking see things in black or white terms. This is all or nothing perspective is a cognitive distortion, called dichotomous thinking. As a result, their behaviors and sense of self are viewed in absolutes. Common examples include:
I didn’t make it to the gym this morning, I’m a lazy …
I should have known better than to ….
I can’t figure this out, what is wrong with me? I must be a ….
Essentially these types of thoughts arise from a core belief of “I’m not enough, and the only way to be enough is to accomplish X.” Unfortunately, this approach only creates a never ending cycle of effort and disappointment. The search for self worth is never possible through perfectionistic thinking, because absolute perfection is an impossibility.
A Final Word
For help with perfectionism and anxiety, please reach out to Good Therapy SF.