Is Perfectionist Thinking Sabotaging Your Life?
I should be more of a perfectionist – perfectionists always have it together!
If you’re like many perfectionists, then you probably understand the fallacy in statements like this: despite what you might look like to others, the reality is that your life often feels full of turmoil, stress, anxiety, and self-hate. Frequently, your fear of not living up to your own impossible standards seems to hijack your work, and even when you do a good job on something, you can’t always recognize it.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at different types of perfectionism, the way that your perfectionist thoughts work, how perfectionism can affect your life, and what you can do about it.
Different Types of Perfectionism
Much like other types of mental health issues, not all types of perfectionism are equally damaging to your well-being. Mental health professionals don’t all use the same terms to describe different types, but most agree that there’s not just one way to be a perfectionist.
- According to org, you can be a “self-critical perfectionist,” which consists of setting such high goals for yourself that you get intimidated by them and suffer adverse effects, or you can be a “personal standards perfectionist,” which is healthier because it consists of being motivated by your goals instead of anxious about them.
- Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, describes types of perfectionism a little differently. He identifies three types: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially-prescribed. The first involves setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, the second involves setting unrealistic expectations for people you’re close to, and the third involves believing that other people hold unrealistic expectations for you.
Overall, it’s not as important to be able to label exactly what kind of perfectionist you are as it is to know whether your perfectionist tendencies are damaging your well-being. Try checking out this simple breakdown on the University of Mississippi’s counseling website to help you figure out whether perfectionism is a damaging force in your life.
How Your Perfectionist Thoughts Work
You’ve probably heard the term “schema” before – basically, it means a way of interpreting the world around you, a way of fitting daily events into some larger idea that you have about yourself and the world. If you’re a perfectionist in a way that’s damaging your well-being, then you have harmful schemas about yourself that generally just aren’t true.
Monica Ramirez explains this in her helpful book Never Good Enough:
“Your core beliefs or schemas are in the background all of the time, even if you are not thinking about them, stimulated by situations or events that lead to automatic thoughts. Negative automatic thoughts are those misperceptions or misinterpretations of events that quickly pop into your head in response to a stressful situation.”
If you’re a perfectionist, then you might have schemas like, “My self-worth is dependent on whether others think I’ve done a good job” or “My loved ones will love me less if I’m not the best at my responsibilities.” Remember, it’s very likely that you don’t actually think sentences like these to yourself consciously – that’s how schemas work: over time, they get internalized in your brain so that you don’t have to consciously think them in order for them to influence you.
How Perfectionism Can Hurt You
Let’s break this down into two spheres of life:
- Personal Life: The book When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough by Martin M. Anthony, Ph.D., and Richard P. Swinson, M.D., examines the toll that perfectionism can take on your interpersonal relationships. First, it can lead you to project your impossibly high standards for yourself onto your loved ones. This will lead to your loved ones feeling like they’ve failed you and probably to resentment of your expectations. Second, it can lead you to suspect that other people have the same impossible standards for you that you have for yourself. As a result, you probably often avoid social situations in order to avoid failure. Third, your loved ones might infer that you think poorly of them even if you don’t verbalize such thoughts because they see how you think of yourself. For instance, if you talk about what a loser you feel like for scoring a 92/100 on a performance review, a friend of yours at work who only scored 85/100 might assume you think that they are a complete failure as well.
- Professional Life: Stephen Guise’s How to Be an Imperfectionist describes a process perfectionists often engage in called self-handicapping. An example of this would be thinking to yourself, “I’ll apply for graduate school, but if I don’t get in then it’ll make sense because I’m so busy right now that I can’t devote much time to my application materials.” Self-handicapping is a defense mechanism perfectionists use to help themselves cope if they don’t achieve their high goals. But this kind of thinking leads them to avoid all-out effort; they have to protect themselves from the crushing possibility of failure.
In addition to these effects, goodterhapy.org lists anxiety, depression, stress, eating disorders, and even risk of suicide as problems that correlate with perfectionism. So what can you do start kicking perfectionism to the curb?
Getting Perfectionism Under Control
Basically, there are two things you have to get under control if you’re a perfectionist:
- Perfectionist Thoughts: This means changing your schemas so that you don’t default to the same old thought patterns that lead you to self-hate, fear, and depression. In order to do this, you have to be able to recognize that those thoughts are affecting your life even when you don’t actually stop and consciously think them to yourself.
- Perfectionist Behaviors: Therapists have different ways of helping clients work on their perfectionist behaviors. For instance, some therapists might recommend exposure therapy, which involves facing one’s fears head-on. If you demand physical perfection of yourself, for instance, your therapist might recommend running errands or going to work without makeup for a day.
There are definitely books you can read – like the ones I’ve mentioned in this post, for starters – that can help you on this road to recovery, but getting the outside perspective of a therapist can be incredibly helpful. A trained therapist can help you identify what specific areas in life your perfectionism is really affecting and can, therefore, recommend specific, targeted interventions that will help you the most. Remember: it’s never too late to stop the self-hate!
Envision Wellness is a private practice that offers psychotherapy, psychological testing, and life coaching in Miami, FL. Our team has a passion for helping others achieve happy, fulfilling, and change-making lives that make the world a better place. Each therapist has their areas of expertise. Not sure who you’d like to work with? Click here to schedule a free 20-minute phone consult to help you decide.
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