It is part of human nature to want to do things well, and this drive can have a number of important benefits for psychological health. It provides motivation to persevere in the face of set-backs and obstacles. Setting realistic goals helps people achieve things they value, and accomplishing goals provides a sense of mastery which in turn produces healthy self-esteem.
However, what happens when the goals set are unachievable, or only achievable at great cost? This situation is no longer one which enhances self-esteem. Instead it has become a source of stress, distress and feelings of failure. It has become perfectionism.
Three Signs of a Perfectionist
There are three main components of perfectionism, each producing negative outcomes.
1. The first is a rigorous striving for extremely high personal standards and goals. This can produce feelings of being stressed, on edge and tense, and can result in a preoccupation with thoughts about performance. As soon as a goal is met, perfectionistic people will often re-set a new, even more demanding goal. In this way successes are largely discounted, and no sense of mastery is achieved. Self-esteem suffers as a result, and depressed mood and sleeping difficulties are common.
2. The second component of perfectionism is an over-valuation of achievement, the way in which self-worth depends very heavily, if not exclusively, on perceived ability to achieve. Over-valuation of achievement can result in a driven life that is usually narrow, with little room for spontaneity. Areas of life that are not achievement-based become restricted, and it becomes difficult for the individual to engage in activities that are not measured in terms of performance but which usually provide pleasure and relaxation, such as reading novels, listening to music or spending time with friends.
3. Third, perfectionism involves continuing to pursue highly demanding standards despite ongoing adverse effects on actual performance and on other areas of life, such as important interpersonal relationships. Perfectionism is self-defeating, and, paradoxically, often actually impairs performance. Intense fear of failing can result in excessive time being taken to complete tasks, repeated checking of performance, and procrastination, in which tasks are put off or avoided because failing to do them well is so aversive. Non-perfectionistic people recover from mistakes more quickly and find it much easier to absorb feedback than perfectionists, who tend to increase their already excessive self-expectations in response to negative feedback or mistakes.
Together, these components produce a cycle of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and behavioural urges such as urges to put off, avoid and/or overwork.
Imagine a situation in which a person has completed a report for work, but has procrastinated and so struggled to get it done on time, or has overworked to such an extent that fatigue has reduced the quality of the finished product. Both these situations produce worry thoughts such as “this won’t be good enough”, with accompanying feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as physical sensations such as a racing heart and sweaty palms. When the report is returned with some changes requested, worries about poor performance become more intrusive and extreme, producing more intense emotional responses and physical symptoms.
If, on the other hand, the report receives very positive feedback, the expectations for future endeavours are increased, and the cycle of worry thoughts, distressing emotions and physical symptoms again draws tighter. These spirals can result in exhaustion and burnout, and can reduce energy, vitality and enjoyment of life.
How Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has a range of approaches to help with distressing thoughts, behaviour urges and upsetting physical sensations, such as those which occur in the cycle of perfectionism.
ACT essentially involves two broad concepts. The first is that of mindfulness, which is a process of open, curious awareness, allowingus to be consciously connected with the present moment, and to “step back” from our thoughts and make room for painful feelings, urges and sensations. In other words, we watch upsetting thoughts and emotions arise without feeling the need to get caught up in them or struggle to push them away.
The second main ACT concept is that of values. Values are the leading principles that can guide and motivate us. They describe how we want to behave on an ongoing basis. The ACT model is aimed towards producing values-congruent living, living in line with our values, which is the path to a rich, full and meaningful life.
Applying these ACT ideas to perfectionism involves developing the capacity to un-hook from perfectionistic thoughts such as “this isn’t going to be good enough” or “I must get an A next time”. A range of mindfulness and other strategies can be used to help the person observe his or her thoughts coming and going without getting hooked into them or dwelling on them.
For example, thoughts may be seen as a series of cars going past the house or leaves floating down a stream. The mind may be seen as a radio broadcasting “doom and gloom”, or thoughts may be visualised as words on a computer screen, instead of being seen as true, as orders, or as always necessarily wise or important.
Painful feelings and sensations, such as anxiety and fear, racing heart and “butterflies”, can be observed non-judgementally as a scientist would, with the aim of accepting and noticing their arising and passing, without needing to avoid, change or interfere with them.
The second main component of ACT, that of valued living, also has relevance for people who struggle with perfectionism. Perfectionism has a profound effect on quality of life, and can interfere with the individual’s capacity to live according to their values, in interpersonal relationships, community life, self-care and so on. By learning to “de-fuse” from perfectionistic thoughts and allowing painful feelings and sensations, people become more able to develop their lives in line with their values, which is the key to a rich and meaningful life.
If you experience problems with perfectionism, and feel that the problems are interfering with the quality of your life and with your physical and mental well-being, please consider making an appointment with me, so that we can explore your difficulties and decide whether ACT is an appropriate treatment for you.
Author: Bridget Hogg, B.Sc. (Hons), M. Sc. (Clinical Psychology)
Bridget Hogg is a Brisbane Clinical Psychologist drawing primarily on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness training as part of treatment for a range of distressing thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
It is an act of courage and self-care to seek therapeutic help for ongoing psychological difficulties, and Bridget respects and admires all clients who take the first step in that process by making their first appointment. She is passionate about helping people improve the quality of their lives, particularly those for whom life feels at times extremely difficult and painful.
To arrange a session with Brisbane Clinical Psychologist Bridget Hogg, you can freecall 1800 877 924 or book online now!