Different ways perfectionists may react | Got Anxiety?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the second in a four-part series from the Barmanns about perfectionism. Click here to read part one.
In general, most people believe that an event they experience, such as being given corrective feedback, is the sole reason for the emotions they experience following the event.
For example, if you invite a friend over for dinner, and your friend is late arriving at your home, you may experience the emotion of anger.
This emotional response may be due to the belief that your friend simply didn’t care enough about you to ensure an on-time arrival.
Someone else who experienced the same situation, when asked what emotion they felt when their friend was late for dinner, might state they felt worried because they began thinking their friend was late due to possibly being in a car accident en route to dinner.
The point being, it is rarely the event itself that leads to the emotions we experience. Instead, our emotions are determined by our thoughts (expectations, interpretations, etc.) concerning the event experienced.
Everyone has a particular manner in which they tend to interpret life experiences, referred to as our “cognitive response style.”
It is the lens through which we view our world. Some response styles are flexible and represent accurate interpretations of the events we experience, resulting in a feeling of general happiness.
Other response styles see the world through a different lens, one which often misperceives, misinterprets and thus makes inaccurate conclusions regarding the meaning of day-to-day life events; resulting in angry, anxious or depressed mood states.
Individuals who think in a perfectionistic manner tend to endorse a very specific cognitive response style, which results in processing information in an inaccurate and biased manner.
This response style involves the use of a distorted pattern of thinking related to the manner in which a person goes about drawing conclusions concerning their interactions with others.
These distorted ways of thinking are referred to as “cognitive errors.” In general, people are unaware of these thoughts when they surface, and how quickly they lead to immediate emotional reactions, as well as consistent negative mood states such as anger, anxiety and depression.
The following is a sample of cognitive errors most often associated with perfectionistic thinking:
All or None Thinking: This cognitive error, also referred to as “black and white thinking,” involves interpreting events as either right or wrong, good or bad, safe or dangerous, etc., void of all other possible interpretations along a continuum of explanations to help give meaning to a particular experience. Self-statements that reflect all or none thinking might include, “Anything less than sticking with my exact exercise regimen is a personal failure. If I miss one day of exercise this week, I might as well have missed them all,” or, “I seem to be the only person at work who knows the correct way to do something.” When this manner of thinking is focused on others, it typically results in anger, whereas all or none thoughts directed at oneself are often associated with feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, or depression.
Should Statements: Thinking styles that frequently include the word “should” are common among those who think in a perfectionistic manner. Should statements represent self-imposed, arbitrary rules regarding how things ought to be done, such as, “I should never come across anxious when speaking to others.” When a person breaks one of their own rules regarding should statements, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression emerge. We often tell those we work with in our private practice that they need to stop “shoulding on themselves.”
Filtering: This cognitive error occurs when a person filters out positive information from an experience, focusing solely on the negative aspects. When receiving a term paper back from one’s college professor, the individual pays a great deal of attention to corrective feedback comments, while completely ignoring all positive comments. Those with perfectionistic tendencies will typically focus only on their mistakes, or the mistakes of others.
Tunnel Vision: Refers to the tendency to pay too much attention to detail, at the expense of missing the big picture. Overanalyzing a task for the purpose of creating a mistake-free performance typically results in procrastination or impaired performance. When taking an exam, a student may spend too much time reading the questions repeatedly in order to perfectly understand the meaning of each question.
Emotional Reasoning: This thinking pattern assumes that one’s emotions dictate reality. Thus, if a person feels anxious, then the situation they are in must surely be dangerous. If left feeling inadequate following the completion of a task, then the result must have been less than perfect.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. They own the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry in Incline Village. Barry may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.