How to Combat Perfectionism

Perfectionism has plagued my life for as long as I’ve had responsibilities. It’s the reason I’ve procrastinated on or at times barely completed any task I found remotely challenging and the reason I’ve felt an acute and enduring sense of shame any time I did not measure up to my arbitrarily high standards, which happens quite often. My perfectionism tendencies have dramatically improved throughout the years, especially after I completed college because school was the biggest driver of my perfectionism. But, I hadn’t really dedicated time to directly combatting them until recently when I worked through the Centre for Clinical Interventions’ (CCI) Perfectionism in Perspective workbook with a peer support group.

CCI defines perfectionism as:

  • The relentless striving for extremely high standards for yourself and/or others that are personally demanding
  • Judging your self-worth based largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards
  • Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge cost to you

I’d recommend anyone who believes they might experience the above to complete all the modules in the workbook, but I’ll share the most helpful takeaways and insights I got from completing the workbook below.

Module 3, p. 4: Since perfectionists tend to be self-critical, they often experience negative emotions caused by unhelpful thinking styles, such as:

  • Black and white thinking: Seeing only one extreme or other without shades of gray.
  • Mental filter: Only focusing on the negative aspects of a situation and ignoring the positive ones.
  • “Shoulding” and “Musting”: Saying “I should…” or “I must…” statements that can sometime create unrealistic expectations.
  • Catastrophizing: Blowing a situation out of proportion even if the issue is quite small.
  • Labelling: Making global statements about ourselves and others based on behavior in certain situations even when we and they don’t always embody those statements.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: Assuming that we know what someone else is thinking (mind reading) and making predictions about the future (predictive thinking) when we don’t truly know.
  • Magnification and Minimization: Magnifying the positive traits of others and minimizing your own.

Module 3, p. 7: Perfectionism is a feedback loop that is aptly illustrated by CCI’s Model of Perfectionism below:

  • Personally, if I were able to achieve my high standards, I usually didn’t decide that the original standards weren’t high enough, but I did always feel an immense amount of stress for the next time I had to achieve those standards since achieving them this time was so arduous. This would sometimes result in me failing to meet those standards again and falling into the self-criticism loop. Realizing how unproductive this cycle is has been crucial for me whenever I’ve felt my perfectionistic thoughts resurge.

Module 5, p. 2: There are two categories to perfectionism behaviors: the things you do due to your perfectionism and the things you avoid due to it. The things you do can include excessive checking, excessive organizing and list making, and correcting others. Avoidant tendencies can include procrastination or just not attempting a task at all for fear of failure.

  • I’ve always viewed the classic perfectionist as the hyper-organized list maker, so I’d never considered myself to be a perfectionist since I’ve only engaged in the active perfectionist behaviors occasionally and rarely excessively. It was only when my therapist identified me as perfectionist that I realized my tendency to procrastinate and not attempt things were because I was afraid I wouldn’t meet my immensely high standards.

Module 5, p. 5: Use behavioral experiments to test perfectionistic beliefs to see how accurate they are. Below are examples given in the workbook:

  • One of the perfectionistic behaviors I have is almost always completing things after I start them because I feel like I won’t get anything out of them if I don’t complete them. While this has helped me complete many things I start, it has also discouraged me from trying out new things frequently because I’m afraid to not finish them.
  • Accordingly, one of my behavioral experiments was starting to read a book but not finishing it if I don’t enjoy it enough to do so. The result was that I realized that I still get something out of reading a certain part of a book even if I don’t read all of it and that from not completing books I don’t enjoy, I can spend more time reading ones I do.

Module 6, p. 4: Completing thought diaries that prompt you to identify activating events and your beliefs, feelings, and the unhelpful thinking styles that were categorized in Module 3, p. 4 and to ultimately challenge them with more balanced thoughts can ease a lot of negative emotions related to perfectionism. A really helpful app that guides you through setting up a thought diary is Moodnotes.

  • When I was doing cognitive behavioral therapy, I was introduced to thought diaries and found that they were actually among the most useful tools I learned in therapy to quell negative emotions. Specifically, I observed that challenging my negative thoughts always helped me gain a wiser perspective on the situation and feel better about it. I never thought to apply this technique specifically to my perfectionistic thoughts but can definitely see how this would be helpful for those as well since the core of what motivates perfectionistic thoughts are negative emotions or beliefs.

Module 7, p. 2: To combat the unproductive feedback loop that is perfectionism, replace your unhelpful and unreasonable rules and assumptions with more helpful and balanced rules or guidelines.

  • One of my unreasonable rules is feeling like I need to do a task as soon as I have one. I think I learned this rule through what I was taught about productivity growing up, and it was further solidified through working corporate jobs where speedy completion of tasks is of utmost importance. While this tendency has enabled me to get various things off my to-do list done quickly, what underlies it is the unhelpful and false belief that if I don’t get something done immediately, I will not do it at all, and some sort of disaster will ensue.
  • Accordingly, my more helpful and reasonable rule is to do things at a pace that makes sense for when the task is due, which means I can delay doing it for one hour or even a day. Of course, I understand this leniency is not given in all jobs or personal circumstances, but it may be helpful to practice it in some area of your life where you are given some leeway.

Module 8, p. 2: Evaluate the aspects of your life that make up your self worth, and consider expanding the aspects that don’t rely on achievement and exceptionalism.

  • I realized that most of my self worth isn’t necessarily derived from achievement of certain external standards, but most of it does come from traits I have I think I am above average on, such as my ability to critically think about things. If I realized that I weren’t above average on most of these traits, my self worth would plummet. Thus, I have made it more of a goal to expand the part of self worth that comes from spending quality time with people I enjoy being around.

Module 8, p. 9: Be mindful of trigger situations that activate your perfectionism tendencies.

  • Learning that I in fact did have perfectionism triggers was major for me, as instead of descending down the cascade of stressful emotions, thoughts, and activities I would automatically have and do at the onset of these triggers, I can now spend time critically thinking about a more helpful and reasonable mindset to have when I encounter them.
  • Specifically, I realized that one of my triggers is games involving competition. In these games, I often focus on winning for fear of looking incompetent to the other players and feel shame when I don’t (which is quite often). The healthier and more balanced mindset I’ve adopted for these situations is to just focus on having fun since that is the goal of games in the first place.

To explore these concepts more in-depth and to read through more examples of each one, I’d highly recommend going through the workbook. While I still have a ways to go in combatting my perfectionism, working through this workbook has honestly been groundbreaking for me in terms of realizing how unhelpful perfectionism is and having more reasonable standards that actually help me get more of what I care about done. Hopefully, it can help you too.

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