I MUST be perfect: The Costs of Perfectionism

Recently, my friend and colleague, Tracey Foulkes (Productivity Coach and CEO of Get Organised) and I were discussing overcoming perfectionism. It’s a common theme in Tracey’s work and I was discussing the psychological considerations – when is perfectionism “normal” and when does it present as part of a potential anxiety disorder? perfectionism

It’s not surprising that perfectionism is so common. We live in a world where high achievement is demanded and praised! It’s not only our personal expectations that may be unrealistic – we may work and live in environments where we are expected to be perfect in every thing that we do.

The thing is that conscientiousness and perfectionism are two different things. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and working hard to achieve them. The problem is when your perfectionism actually gets in the way of achieving those goals. Do you find that you’re always busy, but never getting anything done? Sometimes our need to be perfect (through paying too much attention to detail, procrastination or compulsive checking behaviours) is counterproductive and may cause significant distress (anxiety or depression).

Perfectionism can become problematic if you identify with some of these dysfunctional thinking styles:

  • Black-and-white thinking – “I’m either a great success or a total failure”
  • Catastrophic thinking – “If I don’t give a perfect presentation, it will be the end of the world”
  • Demandingness – “I must be perfect”
  • Over-generalizing – “My one failure makes me a complete failure”

If your car had a flat tyre, would you get rid of the entire car? Of course not! Why then, if you don’t achieve a certain outcome, you deem yourself a total failure? Perfectionists can link their entire self-worth to the achievement of certain goals that often are unrealistic or overly optimistic. Even if they are reachable, it may be at a great cost emotionally.

Excessive perfectionism often can lead to depression, self-esteem issues and anxiety. It’s important to consider when to check if an underlying anxiety disorder may be hampering your ability to overcome perfectionism. All the tools in the world might not assist you if you have an untreated anxiety disorder such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Consider having an assessment with a Psychologist or Psychiatrist if you find that the distress from your perfectionism is causing significant problems with your general functioning (at home or at work). A Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) approach may assist you in targeting the unrealistic, irrational thinking styles that you’ve developed with more rational ones.

Repeat after me:

I’d like to be perfect, but I don’t have to be perfect.

I am a fallible human being.

One failure, does not make me a complete failure.