Sally seemed to have the perfect life. All her friends are still raving about her romantic wedding and handsome husband. She just graduated with her master’s degree and now is enrolled in a PH.D program. She is has a lucrative job and is an all-star athlete. Yet, no one sees buried under her sunny deposition that she suffers from low self-esteem and is miserable. Sally feels she needs to be perfect at everything and craves people’s affirmation and approval of her. She dismisses her graduate school degree believing “it’s not good enough” and thought she would be happier if she became a doctor. After parties she spends hours replaying conversations between her and her friends making sure she said the right thing and appeared smart. She counts her calories incessantly, is obsessive about her physical appearance, and runs every day, beating herself up if she skips one day of exercise.
Do you feel your accomplishments are never good enough? Do you fear failure or disapproval? Do you feel you do not measure up? Have you been told your standards are set too high? Do you have trouble reaching your goals? You may be battling with perfectionism.
Perfectionism is different than a healthy desire to attain high standards or to improve performance. There is nothing wrong with wanting to advance—in fact, such ambition shows strong work ethic and strength of character. According to the online Merriam Webster Dictionary, perfectionism is defined as a “disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” David Burns describes the perfectionist as someone, ” whose standards are high beyond reach or reason…and who strains compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment” (Anthony & Swinson, 2009, p. 10).
Types of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can take on many faces. According to Anthony & Swinson (2009), perfectionism can be self-oriented, which is “having standards for yourself that are unrealistically high and impossible to attain” (p. 11). You are unable to accept your own mistakes and faults. Perfectionism can also be other-oriented “where you demand that others meet your unrealistically high standards” (p.11). For example, these perfectionists may have difficulty delegating tasks fearing others will not do a good job and possess high relational expectations of friends and family. Lastly, socially prescribed perfectionism is where you assume that others have expectations for you that are impossible for you to meet. These perfectionists believe that in order to gain people’s approval, they must meet the high standards they believe others are imposing onto them.
The Dangers of Perfectionism
Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors can fuel and maintain depression. (Antony & Swinson, 2009). For example, when high standards are continually unmet, an individual may start to feel inadequate, disappointed, hopeless and worthless. You may feel something is wrong with you because you are unable to reach your expectations. Perfectionism is also associated with anxiety from excessive worry and fear. Perfectionism also influences other mental health disorders such as obsessive compulsive behavior and eating disorders where rules for self and the world are rigid and inflexible.
Perfectionistic behaviors can be taxing on the body and increase stress. These behaviors may look like: overcompensating, excessive checking and reassurance seeking, repeating and correcting, excessive organizing and list making, difficulty making decisions, procrastination, not knowing when to quit or giving up too soon, excessive slowness, failure to delegate, hoarding, avoidance, attempts to change behavior of others (Antony & Swinson, 2009).
Automated Negative Thought Processes & Perfectionism
Those who struggle with perfectionism tend to have counterproductive automatic and unconscious thinking patterns (Antony & Swinson, 2009). A few examples are:
- All or Nothing Thinking– where something is either right or wrong, good or bad.
- Negative Mental Filter– the tendency to selectively focus on or magnify negative details and dismissing positive information.
- Mind Reading– assuming you known that others think negatively of you. “My coworkers hate me.”
- Catastrophic Thinking– incorrectly assuming that you could not cope with a negative outcome if it occurred. “If I don’t stay thin, no one will ever be attracted to me.”
- Should Statements– arbitrary rules for how things ought to be. “I should always get up early every day.” “I should like reading books.”
Christian Counseling for Perfectionism
Do you want to break free from the restrictions of perfectionisms, but fear letting go? Perfectionism renders us incapable of seeing ourselves as God’s handiwork, and it can keep us from living in the freedom that comes from knowing God’s unconditional love. If you want to change, talking to a Christian counselor can help you find the grace, insight and relief you desire. A Christian counselor can partner with you to discuss ways in which you can foster a healthy self-image that both celebrates your accomplishments as well as acknowledges your weaknesses. He or she will use proven therapeutic techniques and Christian insight to help you discover the freedom that comes from letting go of your perfectionism.
Antony, M. Martin & Swinson, P. Richard (2009). When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. Oakland, CA: New Harbor Publications, Inc.
Basco, R. Monica (1999). Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting It Ruin Your Life. New York: Touchstone.