CBT for Perfectionism
Overcoming Perfectionism In Canary Wharf
- Do you worry about making mistakes?
- Do you set excessively high standards for yourself?
- Do you ever think, “I’m not good enough” or “I’m a fraud”?
- Do you have a fear of failure?
- Do you procrastinate (put tasks off)?
- Is your self-esteem based on your achievements?
What Is Perfectionism?
Ironically, psychologists can’t agree on one definition of perfectionism, which suggests there isn’t a perfect definition. Perfectionism is the tendency to set unrelenting high standards for yourself or for others, which can lead to negative consequences. Perfectionists strive for perfection at all costs, and tend to base their self-worth solely on their achievements, which renders them vulnerable to feeling like a failure when they don’t achieve their goals. Perfectionism is associated with many physical and mental health problems, including sleep problems, migraines, indigestion, depression, anxiety (specifically social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder) and suicidal ideation.
A Recipe For Perfection
Pursuing high standards is not the same thing as perfectionism.
If we had a recipe for perfectionism, it would look a bit like this:
- Never delegate because nobody can do it as well as you
- If you ever do delegate and the job isn’t done to your standard, get irritated and do it over yourself
- Cancel all social plans until you’ve achieved what you need to
- Take an excessive amount of time completing your task (don’t forget to check it over and over for mistakes)
- If you find a mistake, beat yourself up and then work until it’s corrected, even if this means missing the deadline
- Repeat: “nothing is worth doing unless it’s done perfectly”
- Isolate yourself from others and focus solely on work
- When you don’t perform 100% in whatever it is you are doing, make sure you engage in self-critical thoughts – these are the ones that make you feel really bad about yourself! Specifically, “I’m not good enough”
- In addition to self-criticism, make sure you work twice as hard tomorrow so that you do better than today!
I’m sure I have left out some ingredients – after all, I’m not perfect, (and I’m OK with that!) but hopefully you get the picture.
Perfectionism Versus The Healthy Pursuit Of Excellence
David Burns (1980) referred to “the healthy pursuit of excellence” to describe individuals who work hard and do their best to achieve excellence, but who equally see mistakes as opportunities for learning, and who don’t put themselves down for making mistakes.
However, you are a perfectionist if:
- You are motivated by fear of failure or by a sense of duty
- You feel driven to be ‘number one’, but your accomplishments, however great, never seem to satisfy you
- You feel you must earn your self-esteem. You think you must be very ‘special’, intelligent or successful in order to be loved and accepted by others
- If you do not achieve an important goal, you feel like a failure
- You think you must always be strong and in control of your emotions. You are reluctant to share vulnerable feelings like sadness, insecurity or anger with others as you believe they would think less of you
What Causes Perfectionism?
While perfectionism is a personality trait, meaning that it is likely that you were born with this predisposition, it is the interaction between our biology and environment that determines whether perfectionism develops into a problem. Often, perfectionism runs in families; you may have grown up in a home where you observed a parent appearing immaculately, taking great care of the house, or working long hours and becoming hugely successful. Your parents may have communicated that they expected you to get the highest grades, become a lawyer, a doctor, or go to the best university. You may have been rewarded for attaining excellent grades at school, and winning every competition you entered, which would have taught you “in order to gain approval, I must do well” or “I’m only good enough if I achieve”.
The Costs of Perfectionism
1. Conditional Self-Worth
“I’m great because of what I have achieved”
The problem with perfectionism is not merely holding yourself to unrealistic standards, but that you base your self-worth (how you see and feel about yourself) on whether you’ve achieved your goals. This means that you leave yourself open to feeling like a failure when things (inevitably) don’t go to plan. As Greenspon puts it: “it is not the setting of high standards, nor taking ‘pleasure from painstaking efforts’, but rather negative self-evaluation and feelings of conditional self-acceptance that are the hallmarks of the perfectionist” (2000).
It’s great to base your self-worth on what you achieve, when things are going well, but what happens when you have an “off” day? What happens when you don’t achieve what you had hoped? Your self-esteem drops, along with your mood.
It is important that your opinion of yourself doesn’t change on those “off” days. Mistakes are normal, and an expected part of life. You are the same person you were yesterday; the only difference is in the behaviour (you didn’t do as well as you would have liked).
Your worth as a human being hasn’t changed.
2. Health-Related Costs
Perfectionism is associated with physical symptoms like tension, irritability, feeling hurried, migraines, poor sleep, etc., and can also affect your relationships in that your loved ones feel that what they do is never good enough.
3. Wasted time – No Return On Investment
Perfectionists often fall victim to the diminished law of returns, where continually trying to improve a task doesn’t actually pay off. The time and effort you put in doesn’t always lead to “better” results. You therefore stop using your time efficiently, and additional tasks may suffer as a consequence.
How Can CBT For Perfectionism Help Me?
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for perfectionism is an evidence-based therapy, which has been proven effective in helping individuals like you address perfectionism. CBT will help you to value yourself independently of your achievements, i.e., you are not your achievements. You are much more than that. As you work on broadening your perspective for self-evaluation, you will learn new ways of thinking and behaving so that you can achieve your goals without paying such a high cost to your self-esteem, and your health.
I will help you develop practical tools to reduce your perfectionism whilst still achieving your goals (without compromising your performance) such that your anxiety and stress levels reduce leaving you with a greater sense of confidence and control over your life.
The Challenges Of Treating Perfectionism
Addressing perfectionism is not without its challenges. Many of my clients work in environments that reinforce perfectionist tendencies. And, while most of my clients recognize that much of their perfectionism is driven by their own thoughts, when an external source (the organization you work for, or your boss) places unrealistic expectations on you, it may be trickier to address your perfectionism
Can you afford to do a “good enough” job or does it really have to be perfect? Often we catastrophise the actual costs of doing a less than perfect job, when, in reality, nothing bad happens if we spend less time on a task.