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Perfectionism: How to identify and overcome it

21 June 2022 11:59

Perfectionism is a term that is used commonly in everyday life. People often refer to a perfectionist as someone who strives to achieve their best performance and goals in everything they do. It is very common to have perfectionism across many areas of life but it can be problematic and limit your life. Learn how to identify potential perfectionism and overcome the problems it can cause. 

Defining perfectionism

Perfectionism can be present in every aspect of life. Someone may be a perfectionist in just one part of their life, for example work, but it is more common to have perfectionism across many areas of life. Such areas can include work, study, relationships, sport and exercise, personal appearance, weight, cleanliness, personal hygiene, friendships, music, appearance of one’s home, social performance – in fact, any area that is important to someone. 

The way perfectionism is defined here is as follows: 

Perfectionism is the setting of, and striving to meet, very demanding standards that are self-imposed and relentlessly pursued despite this causing problems. It involves basing one’s self-worth almost exclusively on how well these high standards are pursued and achieved. 

Often, people with perfectionism feel they are unable to meet their high standards and so constantly fear failure at the same time as they continually strive to achieve. Sometimes this can result in people avoiding tasks as the fear of possible failure paralyses them. Even when they do meet their standards they will often discount this achievement, thinking that their goal was not hard enough, or that anyone could have achieved it; thus they set the bar even higher next time. 

Identifying perfectionism

To help you determine whether you have perfectionism that might be a problem, it is useful to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you continually try your hardest to achieve high standards?
  2. Do you focus on what you have not achieved rather than what you have achieved?
  3. Do other people tell you that your standards are too high?
  4. Are you very afraid of failing to meet your standards?
  5. If you achieve your goal, do you tend to set the standard higher next time (e.g. run the race in a faster time)?
  6. Do you base your self-esteem on striving and achievement?
  7. Do you repeatedly check how well you are doing at meeting your goals?
  8. Do you keep trying to meet your standards, even if this means that you miss out on things or if it is causing other problems?
  9. Do you tend to avoid tasks or put off doing them in case you fail or because of the time it would take?

If you answered ‘YES’ to question 6 and the majority of the other questions, it is likely you will benefit from the techniques described in this article.

Identifying problem areas

The first step in overcoming perfectionism is to identify the areas of your life in which it is a problem. Here are some examples: 

Area of perfectionism Thoughts Behaviours
Eating I must not eat high-fat foods Restrict eating
Weight 50 kg is the perfect weight for me Restrict eating, increase exercise
Organisation Lists are necessary to be organised Write extensive lists
Social performance I must appear funny and clever Rehearse jokes and stories
House cleanliness My house must always be clean Excessive cleaning
Appearance My appearance must be perfect Always wear make-up and creaseless clothes
Hygiene I must have perfectly clean hands Wash hands over and over
Academic performance I must always achieve above 80 per cent Spend many hours editing assignment
Work performance I have to be excellent at work Work 12-hour days
Intimate relationships I must find the perfect partner Date numerous people, regularly break up due to perceived flaws
Parenting Good mums care for their kids Do not allow children to be babysat
Health and fitness I must exercise every day Engage in self-criticism if you miss a day’s exercise
Entertaining A good host makes perfect food Spend entire weekend planning and preparing a meal


Monitoring your areas of perfectionism

Now that you have identified areas where you may have perfectionism, the next step is to monitor them. This will include recording the times when you are perfectionist, as well as the thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with them. Other things you might record include setting high standards in a particular area, or criticizing yourself for not meeting standards. 

We know from the treatment of anxiety, depression and eating problems that self-monitoring is an extremely important part of changing. It enables you to realize the true extent of the issues. It also enables you to distance yourself from perfectionism-related thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Obtaining such distance, and being able to view your thoughts, feelings and behaviours more objectively begins to free you up to make change. Another important function of self-monitoring is that it enables you to detect patterns in your perfectionism and, ultimately, to stop and think about some of the things that you currently do automatically. 

Here are some useful questions to ask yourself when self-monitoring: Are there patterns in your perfectionism? Were there similar thoughts and behaviours you engaged in over the course of a week? What was the effect of your perfectionism thoughts and behaviours on your feelings? Did you notice that the thoughts and behaviours were leading to negative feelings?

It is likely that simply by beginning this general monitoring of your areas of perfectionism you will have started to identify your particular difficulties with perfectionism.

You can find more useful techniques for coping with perfectionism in Overcoming Perfectionism by Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan and Tracey Wade.