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Perfectionism

It is impossible to be perfect, but our culture, and sometimes our biology, make this very hard to deal with for certain people. Cases in point: the straight “A” student who is a head cheerleader and prom queen, the career woman who juggles her children’s soccer practice, million-dollar business deals, and gourmet meals only found on the Food Network all on your average Tuesday, and the workaholic, “Type A,” executive who thinks vacations are a sign of weakness. Perfection is often confused with excellence. When the attainment of perfection in all domains of life is striven for as if it were the Holy Grail, perfectionism becomes a problem, rather than a motivator or path toward a better, more balanced life.

According to researchers, perfectionism refers to a cluster of thoughts, behaviors, and feelings centered on attaining flawlessness, and in achieving high standards—no matter what the cost. These characteristics may seem at first glance as desirable and helpful for school and work pursuits, and oftentimes reinforced by our society. When this way of being is put into action, however, the results can become quite dysfunctional. Perfectionists set unreasonable standards for themselves and/or others, are chronically dissatisfied even when they slightly miss their excessive expectations, and often equate who they are with each and every performance. Consequently, they are often riddled with doubt and are never satisfied in a lasting manner. A perfectionist can fall into a slippery slope when their belief system interferes with their work and their relationships, but all they do is try even harder to be perfect! Some perfectionists try to impose similar unrealistic standards onto these important people in their life.

Perfectionists tend to continue engaging in the same self-defeating actions despite negative effects due to a strong fear of failure. They avoid the uncomfortable feeling associated with even the anticipation of failure by continuing to pursue their strong standards, which only provides, at best, fleeting relief. When perfectionistic behaviors are very severe, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder may be diagnosed.

Perfectionists appear in variety of forms: the performance perfectionist that must be the best on whatever task they attempt, the appearance perfectionist that is terrified that anyone might perceive that they have a flaw in the way they look or act, the moral perfectionist that holds such a high ethical standard that they experience even the slightest lapse as a major sin, and the interpersonal perfectionist that holds others to impossible standards of conduct and is relentlessly critical. It is very possible to be a perfectionist in one area of one’s life while not perfectionistic at all in other areas (e.g., having to dress perfectly but not interested in being a top employee).

Perfectionists are typically difficult to engage in treatment. Needing the help of a professional, in a sense, is their worst nightmare. If seen at all in treatment, the usual motivating situation is that they are under threat of a negative consequence like losing a spouse or a job, or they have become intolerably anxious or depressed. Perfectionists often need some external pressure to remain in treatment long enough to make significant gains. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one treatment for perfectionism that can yield good results over time. Rigid thinking and behaving common among perfectionists is targeted in CBT treatment in order to increase the perfectionistic person’s flexibility. For example, perfectionists often resort to “all-or-nothing” thinking. These individuals perceive experiences or situations as either good or bad such as their paper is either “perfect” or “not perfect.” In CBT, perfectionists are taught to revise these “all-or-nothing” ratings with more flexible and reasonable perceptions. Because perfectionism is self-perpetuating, early intervention is highly desirable. People in relationships, or parenting, perfectionists often will need their own psychoeducation and guidance.

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