Do you ever struggle with the idea that if you take a break, your professional career, studies or personal goals might suffer? Are you afraid people will be disappointed if you don’t perform and meet expectations? Do you feel shame and guilt when you make a mistake? Do you ever feel like you’re not doing enough or you are not good enough?
If your answer is yes to most of these questions, this blog may be helpful to you. My hope for this blog is to give insight on how we can tackle the vicious cycle of perfectionism and remind you that yes, you are good enough.
So, what exactly is perfectionism? Is it really a problem, or do we see it as a strength? As counsellors & psychotherapists, we often encounter how perfectionism can be the root of many psychological difficulties with clients, and how it affects them. To define it, perfectionism involves setting unrealistically high expectations for oneself & others, with overly critical self-evaluation.
Perfectionism can be a very risky thing. On one hand, when we set high expectations for ourselves, we are dedicated to striving to reach our goals, and often we can be successful in doing so. However - on the other hand, when we set unrealistic goals, we tend to become defeated at the pursuit of reaching them, thus giving in to procrastination and critical self-evaluation.
Perfectionism is often described as a hidden epidemic and the idea of striving to be perfect has dramatically increased with the influence of social media in recent years. Current evidence suggests that burnout, procrastination, elevated levels of stress, anxiety, depression and low self-worth are associated with perfectionism.
Let’s continue to break it down: while it is a common phrase to be our own worst enemy, perfectionism takes it a step further. The act of criticizing yourself for anything which appears to be lacking or not to ones standard and expectation, can rob you from any satisfaction or accomplishment of the things you have done well.
When we think about some of the achievements we have accomplished in our lives, have you shrugged off compliments and forgotten to celebrate your successes because you felt you could have done better? It’s evident that many people worry about lowering their expectations as it might result in a loss of motivation and subsequent failure.
When relating to the present moment and the influence of social media, we can see that the rate of individuals struggling with social issues surrounding perfectionism is continuously exceeding. Irrational ideals of the perfect self have become desirable in a world where status, image and performance are seen to define a person’s value.
So, how can we reframe perfectionism? The importance lies in acknowledging the potential risk of pushing yourself beyond what is realistically possible, identifying what are referred to in the therapeutic world as cognitive distortions, (also known as ‘unhelpful thinking styles’), and then practicing healthier mindset changes using CBT methods of intervention.
What are some examples of cognitive distortions?
1) Should’s & must’s: Using critical words like ‘should’, or ‘must’ can put unreasonable or unrealistic demands on yourself.
Example: ‘I should be exercising every day, I must lose weight to look better..’
Ask yourself: Am I putting more pressure on myself by setting up expectations that are almost impossible? What would be more realistic?
2) Black & White thinking: Commonly known as ‘all-or-nothing’ or ‘dichotomous’ thinking. Things are either all good or all bad.
Example: ‘If I’m not the best at what I do, then I’m worthless.’
Ask yourself: Is there another way of looking at this?
3) Self-criticism: Blaming yourself for situations which you aren’t totally responsible for.
Example: ‘I had a fight with my sister, I’m such a bad person.’
Ask yourself: Would most people who really know me say that about me? What would I say to a friend in the same situation?
When battling perfectionism, it may be useful to recognize the strong link between perfectionism and the brain. To put the depth of perfectionism into perspective, I will briefly talk about our brain’s anti-reward system.
The habenula is a tiny, pea-sized part of our brain which purpose is to process the reward and anti-reward system. Imagine the habenula is the ‘middle man’ that takes information of our lives and evaluates if this data matches a set criterion, the ‘should’s’ and ‘must’s’. It then communicates this with another area of the brain that releases serotonin (feel good chemicals).
When relating this to perfectionism, we see that the habenula signals to release serotonin if you achieve the ‘should’s’ and ‘must’s’, or restricts the release of serotonin if what you do doesn’t fit the set criterion.
When we restrict the release of the feel good chemicals, the way we think, behave and our general mood becomes affected. Just as the reward system is meant to encourage behaviour, the anti-reward system is meant to curb it. The sense of disappointment and dip in dopamine encourages feelings of low self-worth and other psychological difficulties.
The use of CBT in treating perfectionism demonstrates that perfection is not the end goal of each undertaking. Rather, it recalibrates cognitive biases and encourages flexible thinking and correcting unrealistic beliefs and interpretations.
How can we manage & reframe perfectionism?
1) Become Aware: Examining where your beliefs of needing to be perfect came from can help learn to identify, evaluate and challenge negative automatic thoughts (cognitive distortions) and behavioural patterns linked to perfectionism.
2) Cost-benefit analysis: In a cost benefit analysis, we look at what we are gaining and what we are losing. Looking at all aspects of your life, whether it’s your social life or career, what do you gain or lose from trying to be perfect? Making a list of the pros & cons of perfectionism may help recognize the effects of perfectionistic tendencies.
3) Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): The fundamental aim of CBT is to understand our thought processes, beliefs and behaviours. When engaging in cognitive-behavioural therapy, you can learn to identify more practical ways to improve your state of mind by breaking down overwhelming problems into smaller parts. CBT emphasises the importance of challenging cognitive distortions as a reminder to be kinder to yourself and live as your true authentic self.
To end this blog, I would just like to thank you for taking the time to read about reframing perfectionism. While it can be very challenging, I would like to emphasize that you deserve to reward yourself for all of your accomplishments. We often dwell on our mistakes and carry shame on our shoulders. But our mistakes do not define us. You are worthy, you are good enough.
Here at Evolve Mental Health, we offer CBT informed counselling and psychotherapy.
If you have found yourself relating to this blog and would like support on tackling perfectionism, or have any questions, please feel free to get in touch by email on firstname.lastname@example.org.