Are you a perfectionist running away from failure?
Constantly striving for perfection in work, studies, relationships, hobbies and looks may seem like a commendable characteristic and is often associated with being highly motivated and ambitious. However, the truth is this tendency can lead to dysfunctional (clinical) perfectionism where extreme perfectionism couples with black and white (all or nothing) thinking and a lack of realism. This typically leads to anxiety and depression as the individual is constantly running away from their many perceived failures. It's great to have high standards but relentless self criticism and focusing on perceived faults leads to a miserable imbalance, one where there is no room for a healthy sense of self satisfaction, an ingredient that's essential to happiness.
A self imposed stick rather than carrot approach to applying oneself leads to demotivation. Perfectionists label anything except (unrealistic) perfection as failure. This means disappointment, frustration and self criticism dominate over what would otherwise be a healthy analysis that includes a balance of what needs to be improved and what's gone well.
A recent study by the American Psychological Society shows perfectionism has been on the rise since the 1980s. I can confirm that during my time as a therapist I too have seen dysfunctional perfectionism on the rise in those seeking help for anxiety and depression. Worthy of note is my observation that extreme perfectionism is now displaying at a far younger age. I'm seeing school children from 8 years upwards presenting with the same dysfunctional perfectionism that used to be exclusive to adults.
One source of the problem comes from a lack of ability to manage expectations in a balanced way. A multitude of factors including culture, schooling, parenting and social media gear us towards the default expectation of performing at a high level. There is no preparation for the very real every day experience of non-ideal outcomes, set backs and failure. Society is simply ill-equipped to deal with not being perfect. Essential coping mechanisms of resilience and robustness are rarely taught, or handed down.
"Society is simply ill-equipped to deal with not being perfect."
Typical characteristics of dysfunctional perfectionism include:
Not being able to accept failure, no matter how small. Failures are essential to learning. A perfectionist's self criticism and guilt at not being good enough obliterates their opportunity to learn
Paralysis by analysis. Procrastination leads to inaction and an inability to commit, or make decisions. This drives a compulsion to wait and wait (and wait!) for an imagined ‘perfect moment’, which never arises
Setting the bar low. A fear of failure means dreams and ambitions provoke anxiety. Ambitions become pressures rather than aspirations. This leads to avoidance of responsibility such as rejecting a promotion, opportunity to compete, or be tested. Also it becomes impossible to enjoy the moment and new experiences are avoided too in a bid to stay safe
Thinking you’re not good enough. Success, praise or thanks makes you uncomfortable as your insistence on not being good enough (failure focus) makes you unable to believe and therefore genuinly accept compliments
So what’s the answer? A good mind management training program, can help you challenge unhelpful thought habits and behaviours and replace them with new learned balanced thinking.
Telling a perfectionist to go easy on themselves is highly unlikely to change things. Awareness of the issue is the first step. The next is to ‘unlearn’ the imbalance in this dysfunctional thinking style. In order to become a healthy, successful, happy person I suggest you seek help from a therapist who can help you discover a new way of thinking and therefore feeling and behaving. Thought habits can be evolved without dropping high standards by effectively processing the good things you do every day and reducing the strict demands and emotional focus on less than ideal aspects.
If you want help with dysfunctional perfectionism, anxiety, or depression contact me to arrange your free initial consult.