Likely, we all want to do our best. We may even believe we need to strive for perfection. And though we may pay lip service to the idea that nobody is perfect, most of us still desire to achieve excellence in certain aspects of our lives. Striving for excellence is a good quality that can lead to success and fulfillment. Yet, everything works best in moderation. Whether we know or realize it or not, many of us may be striving for perfectionism, a trait that can affect well-being.
So, What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait associated with striving to be flawless and often involves being critical of imperfections. Perfectionism can be a healthy motivator in moderation, excessive perfectionism may cause stress and diminish the chances of success. Therefore, the ability to distinguish between healthy (adaptive) and unhealthy (maladaptive) perfectionism may help understand whether we are helping or hurting ourselves. Generally speaking, perfectionism has two dimensions: perfectionist striving and perfectionist concerns. Perfectionist striving is associated with the pursuit of flawlessness, as well as setting high standards.. On the other hand, perfectionist concerns include aspects such as critical evaluation of one’s self and perceived performance in the light of high standards. A perfectionist typically strives for perfection and is simultaneously concerned about not meeting that expectation. Experts associate perfectionist striving with hopes for success, which can bring about positive outcomes, such as higher levels of performance and self-efficacy. However, in contrast, perfectionist concerns are associated with fear of failure, which may cause worry and stress. Therefore, the balance between these two dimensions may determine whether the perfectionism of an individual is adaptive or maladaptive.
What Is Maladaptive Perfectionism?
Maladaptive perfectionism is associated with elevated perfectionist concern. Therefore, it includes excessive preoccupation and rumination about past mistakes, doubts about achieving goals, fear of failure, and fear of letting others down. These negative emotions may be especially high for things outside the individual’s control. Although adaptive perfectionism can help achieve goals, maladaptive perfectionism can cause severe stress and anxiety. If not managed, maladaptive perfectionism can hurt your chances of success and erode self-esteem and confidence.
Three Examples of Perfectionist Traits
1. All-or-none thinking. According to a perfectionist, everything can be categorized as either perfect or a failure. Hence, if they notice any mistakes—no matter how minuscule—they tend to see the whole thing as a letdown. 2. Unrealistic Standards: Perfectionists may have extremely high standards. As a result, they might judge everything through these standards and label almost everything imperfect. 3. Worry About Failure: Perfectionists strive for excellence and worry that they will fail to reach their goals. Moreover, due to their all-or-none thinking and unrealistic standards, it is often difficult for them to achieve perfection.
How Does Perfectionism Affect Well-Being?
Adaptive perfectionism can help you feel successful and fulfilled. However, maladaptive perfectionism may do more harm than good. Why? Because excessive perfectionism involves holding yourself to unreasonably high standards at all times. This constant effort for excellence can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, chronic stress is associated with adverse health outcomes, including high blood pressure, increased resting heart rate, digestive problems, appetite changes, and a weakened immune system. It can also cause other problems such as irritability, fatigue, insomnia, emotional outbursts, and loss of libido.. In addition to these effects, excessive perfection may also cause you to feel unsatisfied with how your life have turned out. Perfectionists may even feel depressed after repeatedly failing to meet their own expectations. Perfectionism and Caregiving
Caregivers caught in the cycle of wanting to do everything they can for their loved one, often falls into perfectionist thinking. Those in the sandwich generation feel the squeeze from all directions. Yet they still strive to do all they can for everyone they can, except of course, often for themselves. This compounds the stress and feel of failure they experience, leading of course to despair and feelings of inadequacy. Yesterday I spoke with a friend who told me that she believed her sister passed away from the stress of caring for her ailing husband. I was told, "She was always trying to do everything she could but she never seemed to feel she was doing enough or that what she was doing was good enough."
Let’s face it; we can’t always be perfect. Adaptive perfectionism can give us the push to achieve the best we can. Yet, when we set unattainable goals and overly high standards that we can’t achieve, we might become trapped in a vicious cycle of maladaptive perfectionism and start to feel anxious and lose our self-confidence. Luckily, there are ways to overcome perfectionism. Thus, we can all prevent excessive perfectionism from taking the joy out of our achievements and let us be content with who we are, imperfections and all.
Helpful Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism
Maladaptive perfectionism can take over our lives and make us anxious and miserable. However, it is something we can overcome. A few helpful tips include.
1. Setting attainable standards. You might want to question whether your standards are attainable. If your standards are too high, it may be impossible to reach them. 2. Setting realistic goals. This goes along with #1. Aiming high is great as long as your goals are achievable. 3. Be flexible. Learning to be more flexible allows you to adapt to whatever life throws at you and adjust your goals and expectations accordingly. If this is not your natural tendency this may take practice. It may sound simple but it isn't necessarily easy. It is not unrealistic to think you might need help in this area if this is not something that comes naturally.
4. Reframe the way you perceive mistakes. Mistakes and mishaps can happen no matter how careful and well-prepared you are or how hard you work. Thus, it may help to reframe them as learning or growth opportunities. This very often involves our inner self-talk, our inner critic. Negative self-talk is sometimes deeply rooted in our history and may even be something that was told to us throughout our lives. This could include all-or-nothing thinking, labelling, unfavorable comparisons, etc. Here's a strategy: I knew someone who wrote a list of positive messages and praises, then he had his father, who had always been a huge critic ,record them. He played it for himself daily until he started began saying positive things to himself. You can also record this yourself. References
Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 5–31). American Psychological Association.
Gade, J. C., Schermelleh-Engel, K., & Klein, A. G. (2017). Disentangling the common variance of perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns: A bifactor model of perfectionism. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 160.
Slade P. D., Owens R. G. (1998). A dual process model of perfectionism based on reinforcement theory. Behav. Modif. 22 372–390.
Smith, M. M., Vidovic, V., Sherry, S. B., Stewart, S. H., & Saklofske, D. H. (2018). Are perfectionism dimensions risk factors for anxiety symptoms? A meta-analysis of 11 longitudinal studies. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31(1), 4-20.
Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and social psychology review, 10(4), 295-319.
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