What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is thought to be a personality trait in which one’s desire for high standards gets to an unreasonable and unsustainable point. Instead of striving for a successful outcome, any task or goal is approached with a “it has to be perfect to be okay” attitude. Going into a task with this as the goal creates a lot of pressure around making mistakes or finding a point where your work is “good enough.” It also becomes difficult to accept other people’s assessment of your performance and you may find yourself ignoring positive feedback from others.
Often times perfectionism is related to anxiety and a desire for control. Perfectionists fear failure and this fear can be so intense that they avoid engaging in any activity where success is not guaranteed. Unfortunately, this can hold people back from discovering their potential and create problems in school, work, self-care, and relationships.
Why does someone become a perfectionist?
Research has recently started to look at the factors that lead to perfectionism. These include your personality/temperament, biological factors, previous experiences with failure, and the messages you received while growing up. It appears that a combination of biology and environment is reasonable for creating a perfectionistic approach to life.
One of the problems with perfectionism is that it can be too easy to focus on only the benefits of one’s exceptionally high standards. At times, perfectionism can lead to positive outcomes (e.g., high test scores, recognition from others, access to rare opportunities) and this can reinforce the behavior. This standard for behavior is not sustainable and, overtime, perfectionism tends to result in a number of problems.
Research has shown that perfectionism is related to a number of psychological diagnoses, including anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders. Perfectionism is also seen as a risk factor for suicide. In addition to psychological problems, being a perfectionist is also related to physical health problems. Heart disease, for example, in higher in people who identify as perfectionists.
How is perfectionism treated?
Treatment for perfectionism combines several different therapeutic techniques. The foundation of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is designed to help individuals evaluate the accuracy and functionality of their thoughts and behaviors and make changes in these areas when necessary. For perfectionism, this often involves challenging “all-or-nothing” thinking in which outcomes are categorized only as successes and failures. In addition, exposure techniques can be incorporated into the treatment of perfectionism. Under the guidance of a psychologist, exposure therapy can help quickly reduce the emotions surrounding failure and/or lack of perfection.
More recent research has also shown the effectiveness of several other therapeutic approaches, including acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness. Successful treatment will integrate these techniques as necessary. Furthermore, research shows that the benefits of these approaches remain after treatment has concluded.
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