Perfectionism

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the difference between perfectionism and radical acceptance.
  • Recognize the negative effects of perfectionism on self-esteem and well-being.
  • Explore strategies for treating and overcoming perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a major cause of anxiety.

You may have heard the old saying “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Let’s face it, life has a learning curve, and sometimes it’s pretty steep. Learning any new task can be difficult. Fortunately, it’s not where you start that’s important, it’s where you end up. As long as you’re capable of learning from your mistakes, you’re capable of self-improvement, and as long as you’re on the road of self-improvement, then you’re doing the maximum that can be expected of any finite being. Such a person is “perfectly imperfect,” because they no longer see mistakes, only course corrections. This attitude keeps perfection where it belongs, as an aspirational value.

Perfectionism, in contrast, represents the tyranny of the ideal, a dictator who demands absolute obedience, who tolerates no deviations, no individuality, who mercilessly heaps shame onto anyone who falls short of the highest expectations.

Treatment of Perfectionism

You might conclude that the best treatment for perfectionism is to lower the client’s excessively high standards. My experience as a therapist suggests that when you begin talking about lowering standards, you’ve lost the ball game. Perfectionistic clients protect their perfectionism. They come in with poor self-esteem, the consequence of years of shaming themselves with mistakes, and view giving up their high standards as capitulation to inferiority. That’s how ingrained their black and white thinking is.

So, instead of talking about high standards, I use the phrase “healthy standards.” The high standards of perfectionism cause anxiety. The phrase “healthy standards” does not. I point out that high standards are not really the problem. The problem lies with the psychological function of ideals. Ideals are intended to be aspirational. They inspire us and guide constructive action. Perfectionism pushes, but aspirations pull.

Perfectionism about Process, not Product

I also try to shift to focus of the client’s perfectionism from product to process. Rather than create the perfect product, I suggest living a perfectly efficient life, where the point is to maximum return on the investment of time and resources, rather than producing some ideal object perfect on its own terms. This shifts the onus of perfection from object to the purpose for which the object was intended, the purpose belonging to the client. Even perfectionists see the point of this logic, simply because perfectionism is notoriously wasteful in terms of time and requires so much detail management.

The Paradigm of Becoming

I also point out that everything in the universe is in process of transforming into something else. Some of these transformations are slower than others, but the nature of everything is becoming, not being. I further suggest that a paradigm of becoming brings with it the potential for direction and meaning, simply because it focuses the client on becoming a better version of themselves. In contrast, the perfect version is categorically impossible, and therefore also not only unrealistic, but also enormously destructive. Perfectionism is a cause of anxiety, but that changes by changing your attitude toward yourself and your life.


Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is the difference between perfectionism and radical acceptance?

  • A. Perfectionism focuses on mistakes, while radical acceptance embraces imperfections.
  • B. Perfectionism encourages self-improvement, while radical acceptance promotes complacency.
  • C. Perfectionism leads to self-esteem, while radical acceptance undermines self-worth.
  • D. Perfectionism seeks ideal outcomes, while radical acceptance disregards goals.

2. What are some common effects of perfectionism?

  • A. Increased self-esteem and motivation.
  • B. Decreased self-esteem and anxiety.
  • C. Improved well-being and resilience.
  • D. Enhanced creativity and flexibility.

3. How does the treatment of perfectionism differ from lowering standards?

  • A. Treatment focuses on raising standards to overcome perfectionism.
  • B. Treatment emphasizes the importance of maintaining high standards.
  • C. Treatment encourages setting healthy standards instead of excessively high ones.
  • D. Treatment disregards the role of standards in managing perfectionism.

4. What is the key idea behind shifting the focus from product to process in overcoming perfectionism?

  • A. Prioritizing efficiency and maximizing returns.
  • B. Striving for perfection in every aspect of life.
  • C. Accepting flaws and imperfections in one’s work.
  • D. Setting higher expectations for achieving ideal outcomes.

5. Why is adopting a paradigm of becoming important in combating perfectionism?

  • A. It allows for the pursuit of unrealistic and perfect ideals.
  • B. It encourages complacency and the acceptance of mediocrity.
  • C. It promotes self-criticism and relentless self-improvement.
  • D. It provides direction and meaning through personal growth and development.

Answers

1. A

2. B

3. C

4. A

5. D