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Your guide to managing perfectionism

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Have you ever sat paralyzed in front of a blank page? Or finally written something only to rewrite it twice and check it one billion times? Agonized and beaten yourself up over a mistake in an email? Basked in the glow of an achievement for approximately 0.5 seconds before feeling anxious about the next task to perform?

If any of these sound even remotely familiar to you, let’s talk about perfectionism.

What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is exactly what it sounds like – pursuing and demanding perfection from yourself. While there are different kinds of perfectionism, most researchers agree that self-critical perfectionism is especially important to address because of its negative effects on our well-being.

Self-critical perfectionism involves setting high standards for yourself, being incredibly hard on yourself when you don’t meet them, being afraid of making mistakes, and being afraid of being criticized or judged. Research suggests that this kind of self-criticism makes you less likely to achieve your goals (cruel irony) and negatively affects your mental health.

What causes self-critical perfectionism?
Research suggests that a lot of things can lead to self-critical perfectionism, but that there are a couple of particularly important factors.

The first are your caregivers’ parenting style and your experiences with peers. If you grew up around caregivers who were harsh and critical towards you (for example, making negative or critical comments to you, penalizing mistakes), or had experiences with being rejected, left out, and bullied by peers, you’re more likely to be harsh and critical towards yourself. We often learn how to treat ourselves from how others treat us.

The second is your experience with meeting or not meeting expectations. If you have often been rewarded for meeting unrealistically high standards – for example, with compliments, praise, or status – you’re more likely to keep chasing that reward. If you have a lot of experiences with being punished for failing to meet high standards is – for example, with criticism, coldness, or cruelty – you’re more likely to become more and more afraid of ever failing.

How can you manage self-critical perfectionism?
The antidote to self-critical perfectionism is self-compassion: being kind and understanding toward yourself when you fall short of expectations, and recognizing that we’re all human –being imperfect, making mistakes, and failing are inevitable parts of the human experience. Ask yourself:

  1. Where did I learn that I have to be perfect? Whose voice(s) is this in my head? The things you are telling yourself are not universal, sacred truths – they are things that you absorbed or learned, and that cause you stress and pain. You can choose to treat yourself more kindly than you may have been treated by others.
  1. What does perfect mean to me? Does perfect mean “so good that others will praise me, because if they praise me then it means I’m good?” Or “so good that others can’t criticize me, because if they criticize me then it means I’m bad?” Or something else? Recognize that perfect is subjective, and that it’s a standard that will always keep moving further and further beyond your reach.
  1. Is it worth it? If you do meet your own incredibly high standards, is the short-lived relief worth the long-term stress, anxiety, frustration, sadness, and disappointment that comes from chasing it?
  1. What am I teaching myself? When we constantly tell ourselves we have to do better and be better, what we are teaching ourselves is that we are not good enough as we are. And that traps us in a vicious cycle: I think that I’m not good enough, so I try to meet high standards to prove that I am – If I don’t meet my standards, I tell myself it’s proof that I’m not good enough, so I have to try harder. And if I do meet my standards, it reinforces the thought that the only way I’m good enough is if I perform well; either way, I continue to try harder. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to get off this train. Let the things you do, and how well you do them, be separate from your fundamental worth as a person.

If you're ready to try therapy for mental health struggles and life challenges, find the digital mental health therapy best suited for you and complete an assessment.

Selected References and Further Reading:
-Dunkley, D. M., Berg, J. L., & Zuroff, D. C. (2012). The role of perfectionism in daily self‐esteem, attachment, and negative affect. Journal of Personality, 80(3), 633-663.
-Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M. M. (2016). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. Guilford Publications.
Hewitt, P. L., Flett, G. L., & Mikail, S. F. (2017). Perfectionism: A relational approach to conceptualization, assessment, and treatment. Guilford Publications.
-Kopala‐Sibley, D. C., Zuroff, D. C., Leybman, M. J., & Hope, N. (2013). Recalled peer relationship experiences and current levels of self‐criticism and self‐reassurance. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 86(1), 33-51.
Moore, E., Holding, A. C., Hope, N. H., Harvey, B., Powers, T. A., Zuroff, D., & Koestner, R. (2018). Perfectionism and the pursuit of personal goals: -A self-determination theory analysis. Motivation and Emotion, 42(1), 37-49.
Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive. Guilford Publications.
-Stoeber, J. (Ed.). (2017). The psychology of perfectionism: Theory, research, applications. Routledge.

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.