Perfectionism is an interesting idea. Many consider this term a compliment, some pride themselves of being a perfectionist, whilst some would even say that they wish they are a bit more of a perfectionist. However, as a psychologist, I have to say that a huge chunk of my time is actually spent helping clients learn to be less perfect.
People with perfectionism tend to find control an essential part of their lives. Of course, we all need to have a certain level of control to be able to operate in our daily lives effectively. However, for people with perfectionism, their sense of control is often excessive. The underlying belief is that “If I am in control, I am safe”. Therefore, they often spend an incredible amount of time trying to be in control. This can manifest in over-preparation, such as packing absolutely everything into their bag before they go out, or spending too much time reading before they start writing their university assignment. Some people might also try to be in control by following rigid internal rules, such as doing house chores in a meticulous way, or being super self-disciplined.
It is not hard to imagine that if we actually do things these ways, we are likely to be super high-achievers, and always in a comfortable position of feeling very prepared. Not only we may “approve” of ourselves when we can achieve these, we might even get a lot of admiration from others because of our sparkling clean house, our beautifully trained body, or the thoroughness of the projects we do at work, as an outcome of our high level of self-expectation.
What’s so bad about perfectionism, then, if it is actually rewarding?
The excessive amount of work that is behind all the “achievements” can be a big problem. To be completely prepared and to have everything under control takes a lot of time, effort, and energy. To keep it up requires no disruption of the status quo. But as we all know, life happens. When our life becomes more stressful due to things like changes in our work, an injury, getting married, having a baby, or just general life situations, we may find rigidly following the high standards onerous and overwhelming. Procrastination is one of the common consequences. When people don’t let go of the high standard, and that standard becomes so overwhelming for them that the task appears to be unapproachable. This could lead to no accomplishment. Instead of just doing some dishes in the sink, none of the dishes are done. People in this situation usually feel very distressed about the outcome, which perpetuates the level of stress, and forms a vicious cycle.
Another common consequence is becoming so highly irritable due to the level of pressure, that they frequently lash out on people around them. This could result in disruptions in relationships between husband and wife, parents and kids, and so forth. When the pressure gets to an unbearable level, some people may start avoiding any situation that they are not in total control of. This could lead to social isolation, loss of opportunities, and further perpetuation of the overall anxiety level.
Also, when our self-esteem is linked to things like how clean our house is, how well-fed our kids are, or how our body looks, then our self-esteem is in great danger of being easily swayed due to life circumstances. A person who has always been capable at work has already shown that she is a capable person, the number of dishes in the sink is a reflection of how time-poor her life is, not how successful she is as a person.
Looking at our overall context is a helpful step into adjusting our standards. Take things into consideration rather than getting tunnel-visioned on only one aspect of your life that is not done well. You have been late to an appointment because there has been a holdup on the way, not because you are an unreliable person. You have not got around to doing the laundry because work has been particularly stressful lately, and by the time you get home you are always exhausted, not because you are a lazy person. When we can treat ourselves with more love and compassion, then it makes sense to relax our rules and standards. Just remember that striving to achieve a high standard is not a bad thing when it’s not damaging to your mental health.
Jennifer MPsych (Clinical), PGDip ClinPsych, BA(Hons – First Class) is a psychologist who understands that a good therapeutic relationship is the starting point of any meaningful work with her clients. She is genuine and easy to talk to, and is dedicated to creating a safe space for her clients to share their stories.
Jennifer has worked in the fields of health psychology as well as general mental health in adults and children. These experiences have equipped her with skills in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of a range of mental health presentations. In addition, she has developed expertise in the management of tinnitus and hypersensitivity of hearing. Recognising that everyone is unique and different, she sees the importance of establishing a collaborative therapeutic relationship, and is committed to tailoring evidence-based interventions to her clients with different situations and backgrounds to effectively promote their mental wellbeing.
Through her years of clinical work, Jennifer has pursued her interest in working with adults experiencing a range of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social adjustment issues, stress management, and cross-cultural issues. She is passionate about therapy, and is always committed to further increasing her professional knowledge to ensure she can provide the best possible care for her clients.