What is perfectionism?
We often use the term ‘perfectionist’ in a light-hearted way, to refer to a friend or colleague who’s being that bit too fussy about something. However, research suggests that having higher levels of perfectionism as a personality trait is one of the strongest factors which can reduce our resilience and make us vulnerable to stress (Johnson et al., 2011). At its heart, perfectionism describes the tendency to hold rigid, unrelenting, high standards. These are the kind of high standards that don’t bend in response to stress and don’t allow for excuses. It has been suggested that there are three types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, where we impose strict and high standards on ourselves, other-oriented perfectionism, where we impose strict and high standards on others, and socially prescribed perfectionism, where we believe that other people demand overly high standards from us (Hewitt and Flett, 1991). These three types of perfectionism cluster together – that is, if you are high in one, you are likely to be high in others.
What’s this got to do with resilience?
If having more of this trait makes us vulnerable to stress, what can this tell us about resilience? Well, every positive factor has a negative opposite – and every negative factor has a positive opposite. So if more perfectionism is bad, then less is good; and if perfectionism describes rigid, high standards, then the other end of this spectrum is mental flexibility (Figure 1).
It’s not high standards that are the problem
Let’s be clear, reducing perfectionism isn’t about lowering high standards. Having high standards is often a strength, driving people to make great achievements. The problem is not the standards themselves, but the fact that they are rigid and inflexible. Aiming high when you’re feeling strong can be positive, but insisting on reaching the same standard when you’re under unusually high pressure can be exhausting. There’s a need to maintain personal equilibrium, to adjust standards in response to what is manageable, given the situation. Doing this can ensure that you bend without breaking, and feel ready to return to full strength when your situation changes. On the other hand, piling on the pressure to meet overly high standards at all times is a recipe for burnout.
Types of inflexible thinking
There are different thinking habits we can fall into that feed perfectionist thinking and reduce our ability to be flexible. These kinds of thinking habits are inflexible, rigid and demanding. Some examples are:
- Black-and-white thinking. This is where you lose sight of the grey areas, and go into a mode which is ‘all or nothing’. The kind of thoughts you might have are “Anything less than the best is unacceptable” and “Asking for help makes me a failure”.
- Catastrophic thinking. This is where you blow up the consequences and believe that if something goes wrong then it will be unmanageable. Some catastrophic thoughts are “If I fail the exam, my life is over” and “If I don’t get it right, I’ll never be able to face my parents”.
- Probability overestimation. This is where you overestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes. Some thoughts you might have are “Although I revised for the exam all week, it won’t be enough”, and “There’s no point in entering the competition, because I’d never win”.
- Should statements. This is where you put yourself under a tyranny of rules. These are rigid, and do not adapt or relax when under times of pressure. Some thoughts you might have are “I should always be polite”, and “I should always foresee potential problems”.
Some ways to enhance mental flexibility
- Develop self-awareness
Notice when you are falling into these thinking habits and pushing yourself too hard. Some useful questions to ask yourself are:
- Am I feeling more irritable or distracted than usual?
- Am I showing any physical signs of stress – am I more tired than usual, or struggling with sleep?
- Is anyone else telling me that I’m pushing myself too hard to meet these standards?
It may be useful to keep a brief diary. Write down the events of the day, your thoughts/interpretations of these, and how you feel emotionally at the end of the day. This will help you understand your own patterns of behaviour, how you interpret events and how this effects you emotionally. For example:
|Passed exam, but with a lower grade than predicted
|I should have seen this coming. That module was tough and I’m just not up to it. I’ll have to work twice as hard next time, if I want to stand any chance of having a successful future.||Worried, embarrassed, downhearted.|
|Saw Mary, went for a drink||It was great to catch up, it’s been too long. Sounds like she’s doing really well. Had forgotten some of those times we chatted about!||Happy, hopeful.|
- Do something to lift your mood
Negative emotions narrow the focus of our attention (Fredrickson and Joiner, 2002). This means that we are more likely to get stuck thinking about our problems, and lose sight of the bigger picture. By contrast, positive emotions can open the scope of our attention. They help us to think more broadly and to find different ways of looking at our situation. Perfectionistic thinking is closely linked with negative emotion: it is unrelenting and demanding, and rarely helps us to feel good. A good first step in tackling this can be to do something that makes you feel more positive. This might be doing something you enjoy, like seeing friends or going to a film or something active, like exercise. You might also want to engage in the Broad-Minded Affective Coping Procedure (BMAC), a therapeutic exercise designed to boost mood (for an example of this see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXLhtkHck78 ). The key thing is to do something that will give you a quick lift, as this will help you to think of things that can help you and implement change in the longer run.
- Set yourself some new, realistic and flexible standards
It can be useful to write yourself a new list of standards and statements, and to read these when you know you are pushing yourself too hard. Some examples of these are:
- It’s not possible to be perfect all the time, and that’s ok
- My own wellbeing is more important than my achievements
- It’s ok to say the wrong thing sometimes, I’m only human
- It’s not possible to be in a good mood all the time
- I can only do my best, I can’t control all possible outcomes
- Think about your fears from someone else’s perspective
Confide your worries and fears to close friends or family who care about you and whose opinions you find helpful. Later on, when you are stressed and you think you may be pushing yourself too hard, you can then draw on these conversations in your mind. Think back to them and try and see your current situation from their perspectives. Ask yourself questions like:
- If I told [friend or family member] how I had failed to achieve my usual standard, what would they say?
- What advice would [friend or family member] give me about my current worry?
- What advice would I give [friend or family member] if they had this same problem?
- Test your fears
Sometimes we need to change how we behave to change our thinking. In particular, it can be useful to challenge our fears in small ways. For example:
- If you insist on always being early, try arriving at an event 10 minutes late.
- If you hold very high standards about your appearance, wear something that is old, creased or has a stain on it.
- If have a very strict exercise regime, try doing no exercise for a week
- If you have very high standards for how you behave socially, try saying something you would normally not allow yourself to do so
Before you test out your fear, write down a list of what you are worried will happen. What do you think will go wrong as a result? Then rate each fear on i) how likely you think it is to happen (from 0 [not at all likely]-100 [will definitely happen]) and ii) how bad the impact will be (from 0 [I’ll barely notice it] to 100 [it will affect every area of my life for good]). After you’ve completed the test, read your list of fears. Did they happen? For those that happened, how bad was the outcome in reality? Rate it again from 0-100. Compare your ‘before’ and ‘after’ lists. For example:
First list (before the test)
|Feared event||What I’m worried will happen||How likely is it to happen?||How bad will the impact be?|
|Wearing clothes with a mark on||Other people will notice||100%||70%|
|Other people will judge me, and give me funny looks||100%||80%|
|I’ll be so embarrassed I’ll go bright red||100%||90%|
|I won’t be able to think straight and get my words out||90%||100%|
|I won’t be able to face them again||80%||100%|
Second list (after the test)
|Feared event||What was worried would happen||To what extend did this happen?||How bad will the impact be?|
|Wearing clothes with a mark on||Other people would notice||20%||0%|
|Other people would judge me, and give me funny looks||0%||0%|
|I’d be so embarrassed I’d go bright red||60%||20%|
|I wouldn’t be able to think straight and get my words out||20%||40%|
|I wouldn’t be able to face them again||0%||0%|
When we do this we often realise how bad our fears were before we started. Afterwards, even though we may still be afraid of reducing our high standards, we see how that fear has been reduced. In CBT, we call this a ‘behavioural experiment’. For a video example of one of these in a therapy setting, please see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExNs8o8A4fI
Evidence for reducing perfectionism and enhancing flexibility
Enhancing flexible thinking is a key feature of most cognitive-behavioural interventions, but recent years have seen the development of some interventions focused specifically on developing this. There is now a strong body of evidence to suggest that these interventions are both successful in reducing perfectionism, and also in boosting overall mental wellbeing. A recent meta-analysis and systematic review identified 8 studies that had investigated this and reported a large-effect sizes for studies reducing perfectionism, and found evidence that these interventions also reduce anxiety and depression in participants (Lloyd et al., 2015).
FREDRICKSON, B. L. & JOINER, T. 2002. Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.
HEWITT, P. L. & FLETT, G. L. 1991. Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 456-470.
JOHNSON, J., WOOD, A. M., GOODING, P., TAYLOR, P. J. & TARRIER, N. 2011. Resilience to suicidality: The buffering hypothesis. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 563-591.
LLOYD, S., SCHMIDT, U., KHONDOKER, M. & TCHANTURIA, K. 2015. Can psychological interventions reduce perfectionism? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy, 43, 705-731.
For more information on some of these techniques and other ideas for overcoming perfectionism, see https://www.anxietybc.com/adults/how-overcome-perfectionism
This blog post was first published on 24th November 2016 at https://www.psychreg.org/enhancing-self-esteem/