Monday, July 19, 2010

The Problem of Perfectionism: Part 1

Today’s society continues to demand increasingly high standards in virtually every arena. Unfortunately, we often interpret “achieving excellence” as “it must be perfect”. While maintaining a high standard is important, when it becomes confused with perfectionism it actually fails to lead to the desired consequences of success. The idea of achieving perfection is a goal that is impossible to meet, and the more we demand perfection from ourselves, the more the “finish line” moves, and the more overwhelming the task becomes.

It can be difficult to find the line between ‘perfectionism’ and ‘excellence’, and healthy motivation and striving. Burns (1980) defines a perfectionist as someone “whose standards are beyond reach or reason”, and “who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment”. For perfectionists, thoughts and behaviors may be maintained by a number of factors, including fear of failure, inadequacy, or fear of disapproval and disappointing others. One way of locating that line is by asking yourself: (1) Is my goal attainable? (2) Are my beliefs in my ability to do this accurate? (3) Am I able to adjust my standards when necessary?

Perfectionism may look different in different individuals. For some, it is the attitude that “I’ll do it by myself…because no one will be able to do it as well as I can”. Other individuals may not take risks or try new things because they may not be good at it, while others become chronic procrastinators. Perfectionism may also look like overcompensating, excessive checking and seeking reassurance from others, difficulties making decisions, and avoidance of some activities and situations all together. The struggle to be perfect makes it difficult to recover from mistakes, and often leads to social and performance anxiety, depression, anger, and/or low motivation. It can also contribute to body image problems and eating disorders. 

Next week, I'll give you seven ways to break the cycle of perfectionism.

Dr. Nyaka Niilampti is a licensed psychologist at Southeast Psych who specializes in performance enhancement, as well as the treatment of anxiety and depression in teens and adults.