The Problem with Perfection
At this point in the year, most young adults and adolescents are wrapping up their year – studying (cramming) for finals, frantically finishing projects, and turning in outstanding assignments. For most, this is a time of moderate stress and excitement; but for many, this is a time of extreme anxiety and perfectionism.
We live in a time and culture where the emphasis is placed on grades, number of AP classes, ACT/SAT scores, and what college one plans to attend. There is an unhealthy belief that, “If I am not perfect, I am not going to be successful.” But, what if that wasn’t true? What if you could have high standards and still be successful? What if you could not spend eight hours a night on homework and still get good grades?
My job as a cognitive-behavior therapist is to teach my clients that achieving perfection isn’t possible. Instead, we have to learn how to be OK with less than perfect and how to strive for a healthy pursuit of excellence.
What is Perfectionism?
- The relentless striving for extremely high personal standards
- Considering yourself a failure if perfection is not met
- Unachievable, standards always raised when met
- Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge cost to you
What’s so Bad About Trying to be Perfect?
- Leaves you feeling on edge, tense, and stressed out.
- You often feel that your best efforts are not enough
- It is self-defeating
- If you don’t achieve perfection, you feel like a failure
- It’s draining, time-consuming and impossible
What's the Difference Between Having High Standards and Being a Perfectionist?
Sees mistakes as part of the learning process
Sets standards and then adjusts them accordingly
Self worth is based on multiple aspects of one's personality - it does not fluctuate based on grades/achievements
Willing to try new things regardless of outcome
Mistakes are unacceptable
Sets inflexible, unrealistic goals
Self worth is based on achievement
Avoids new experiences due to fear of making a mistake
How to Be Less of a Perfectionist
1. Identify and challenge your perfectionist thoughts – e.g., “Anything less than an A is unacceptable.” Ask yourself:
- Are there unrealistic beliefs in this statement?
- Is there any evidence to support or not support this statement?
- Am I being inflexible in how I am thinking?
- What would I tell my best friend?
2. Identify and challenge your perfectionist behaviors:
- Do you tend to overcompensate and study for excessive amounts of time? Or Do you tend to avoid the work or procrastinate?
- Confront your feared situations: Begin by tackling tasks that you have been avoiding doing (e.g., procrastination) or experiment with not doing your perfectionism behaviors (e.g., checking).
- Set and stick to time limits
- Practice making mistakes:
Trip in front of someone
Order something that isn’t on the menu
Greet someone by the wrong name
Ask for directions to a store in which you are located or is close-by
Ask an obvious question
3. Broaden your self concept:
- What is important to you?
- What do you want your life to stand for?
- Are your perfectionist behaviors in line with your values?
- What’s the value in being imperfect?
- What do you want admiration for?
- What would you like to get good at?
Change doesn't happen overnight (even for a perfectionist), so go easy on yourself and remember that challenging perfectionism is not about lowering your standards. It's about striving for excellence, being willing to try new things, and cultivating a more flexible way of thinking.