Perfectionism is a very complicated term, in my opinion. It carries with it this connotation of someone who is very “type A,” who is meticulously clean and organizes everything. This is a very narrow view, however, as it is a general mindset that is much more pervasive. Perfectionists hold impossibly high standards in many areas of their life – that things must be or go “perfectly.”
In some ways, this can be a real strength. Any perfectionist can tell you that they likely had very high standards for themselves when it came to grades, and they can be very detail-oriented, which certainly can be a prized skill. They are likely pretty good friends, having impossibly high standards for themselves as friends to others.
In other ways, these impossibly high standards can cause problems. The core nature of life as a human is imperfection. Waiting for a “perfect” time, or expecting someone to be the “perfect” friend, family member or partner can be a set up for failure, as perfection is not ever a likely outcome. Wanting to be “perfect” is also a personal set-up – you will always fail at that. Perfectionism creates standards that are usually very unlikely to ever be met fully.
How do we start to reverse this rigid way of thinking? Well the first step is always awareness. Often times perfectionists use what is called in CBT “black and white thinking.” This is the idea that the perfectionist is thinking of things in terms of black or white, ignoring all the “gray area” in-between. An example might be – “I screwed up and ate a handful of M&M’s, so I might as well finish the bag.” The person is thinking that the choices are to not eat any M&M’s, or to eat the whole bag, ignoring the “gray area” of being able to eat anything between one handful and the whole bag. They are thinking in terms of perfect or not perfect. Try noticing if you might be using this “cognitive error.”
One way to try to better accept the “gray” between the black and white is to use a skill from DBT‘s distress tolerance skills – “radical acceptance.” This is the idea that you have no power to change what happened before, but you do have the power to change the future. By identifying and naming what is going on, we can make a plan of attack of how to change it. Say you have a family member who is difficult to get along with, and you struggle to handle they way they are, although they are not likely to ever change. You might choose to accept that they are as they are, and choose to respond in a way that feels good to you. This lessens expectations that they should be perfect.
Maybe you are a perfectionism when it comes to your personal standards – you feel that you should always look or act perfectly. You might do some introspection – what led you to this line of thinking? Do you have a parent that is a perfectionist that may have passed along some of their trait? Do you feel like others in your life have impossibly high standards for you? You might try to do some work around trying to “radically accept” your own unique traits or challenges. Try to be a good friend to yourself by being compassionate and forgiving. You might try to incorporate some more Positive Self-Talk into your life and/or seek out some therapy as an additional support.
One sneaky way that perfectionism creeps into some people’s life is through what I call “passive perfectionism,” or avoiding doing something because you fear not doing it the “right way” or perfectly. This leads to procrastination, which increases stress, and can increase pressure to do things perfectly when you finally get around to doing it, if you do it at all. This can also be related to perfectionists
stopping creative hobbies (i.e. drawing, painting, writing, etc.) because they aren’t “good enough,” even if they never intend to share the products of their art with anyone.
In what ways can you create more appropriate expectations in your life? Can you start to let control go of needing perfection and start being able to accept things as they are? Once you do, you can stopping living in the black and white, and start living in the gray, or as my clients like to call it, the “sparkly rainbow.” Sparkle on my friends.