Perfectionism

By: Stephanie Larsen, Psy.D

Perfectionism is a personal standard or attitude where goals and expectations are set at a level that are impossible or very difficult to reach.  Perfectionists can excel at school or struggle due to procrastination and difficulties completing assignments to their satisfaction.

Most people strive to do their very best in academics and life in general and if they are unable to meet their goals or make a mistake they will not classify themselves as a complete failure.  Conversely, a perfectionist often thinks very dichotomously and, therefore, if a mistake is made it is then perceived as a failure.  With the significance placed on failing and catastrophic thoughts, individuals that are perfectionistic often become anxious and obsessed with avoiding mistakes. Low levels of anxiety can fuel productivity and push individuals to achieve to their highest potential. In many ways anxiety can push them to reach their goals. On the other hand, anxiety can increase to problematic levels if an individual’s goals are just beyond reach.  It can be more productive and less distressing to move away from a perfectionistic nature and towards more realistic expectations and thoughts. So, how is that done?

  1. Write out all of your expectations and how they make you feel. It is also helpful to write out and determine how these goals and expectations affect your behaviors.
  2. Evaluate the expectations you have written and ask yourself, “How realistic are these goals?” This may also be determined by comparing your expectations to other’s expectations.  Things you are looking for are the catastrophic or dichotomous thinking previously mentioned. Some common distorted thoughts of perfectionists have themes of:
    1. All-or-Nothing Thinking (Dichotomous thinking): “ If I don’t get an A on this test, I’m going to fail or I’m stupid.”
    2. Catastrophic Thinking and Future Telling: “If I don’t get a good grade on this assignment I’ll never get into college, then I won’t get a job, and then I’ll be living with my parents forever.”
    3. Should Statements: “I should have written another paragraph for this essay. I should never get a B.”
  3. Create positive affirmations reminding you of your worth and true abilities. Repeat affirmations daily.
  4. It can be helpful to estimate how much the current activity or situations will really impact your life in 1 year or even 5 years.
  5. Identify and rank-order your priorities to determine what goals to maintain and focus on and what goals or expectations to emphasize less.
  6. Gradually reduce your expectations. If you normally revise an essay 5 times, try to only revise it 4 times and then during the next assignment only 3 times. It can be easier to adjust to the anxiety if you take your fears in smaller steps; it also feels easier to accomplish than drastically changing your habits.
  7. If you continue to struggle with perfectionistic thinking it may be beneficial to seek professional support from a psychologist or therapist.
  8. Once you’ve faced your fears and decreased your anxiety reward yourself!!!