Try out these tips for managing perfectionism — Got Anxiety?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
Within this series on perfectionism, we have discussed the most common cognitive and behavioral response styles displayed by those who believe the only way to do something, is to do it perfectly.
Today, let’s take a brief look at some tips for changing these ways of thinking and behaving.
However, we strongly encourage anyone who is experiencing depression or anxiety — which may be exacerbated by perfectionistic response styles — to seek help from a mental health professional who specializes in treating Perfectionism and/or Anxiety & Mood Disorders.
CHANGING HOW YOU THINK
Changing your perfectionistic beliefs involves treating these thinking patterns as “predictions” or “possibilities” concerning the outcome of a particular event, rather than factual in nature.
The three strategies discussed below should be practiced each time you find yourself engaged in perfectionistic thinking — or, better yet, prior to performing an activity that typically triggers your perfectionistic thought patterns, thus allowing you to better identify, anticipate and challenge these thoughts before they occur.
1. Behavioral Experiments
This strategy consists of conducting carefully designed “experiments” that involve intentionally behaving in ways which do not coincide with one’s beliefs concerning how to achieve high standards, and is an excellent way to test the validity of perfectionistic predictions.
For example, consider a student who typically writes term papers that involve an excessive amount of detail, resulting in papers which far exceed the required page limit.
The student’s perfectionistic belief is, “To not include such detail would be a mistake, and thus result in a grade less than an A.”
In order to test this belief, the student would need to intentionally omit excessive detail in a future assignment, and then wait to see the resulting grade. Yes, changing how we think, involves accepting risk.
2. Take Another Perspective
Think about other people you know well, and imagine how they tend to view tasks similar to those that trigger your perfectionistic thinking.
When attempting to take on the perspective of someone other than you, rather than simply imagining how he or she might respond in a given situation, ask him or her directly how they think when needing to perform an important activity.
For example, if you believe it is important to take a day off work in order to have ample time to clean your house prior to having guests over for dinner, ask several people you know who have homes you consider to be spotless how much time they spend cleaning their house before entertaining dinner guests.
However, be certain not to survey those who employ one or more house cleaners on a weekly basis!
3. Social Comparison Habits
Perfectionists have a habit of consistently comparing themselves to those who are significantly more skilled than them in some particular area.
Examples would include perfectionistic amateur cooks or musicians who compare themselves to those who have spent years fine tuning their careers, resulting in having achieved great success and popularity.
Comparison habits of this nature only serve to reinforce feelings of inadequacy about not meeting one’s own exceedingly high self-standards.
It may prove helpful to limit social comparisons to those who are more similar to your current skill level.
CHANGING HOW YOU BEHAVE
Repeating the same behavioral response patterns directed at reaching certain self-standards only serves to prevent people from learning that these behaviors may be unnecessary paths to future achievement — for example, those who believe the only way to avoid making mistakes is to spend a great deal of time reviewing their work.
Consistently performing this behavior results in preventing the individual from learning that they probably could have achieved the same result by spending far less time engaging in excessive reassurance checking.
The most effective strategy for changing perfectionistic behaviors is the use of Exposure exercises.
Exposure involves directly confronting situations that make a person feel anxious, uncertain, inept, etc.
With respect to perfectionistic behaviors, exposure exercises involve constructing a hierarchy of situations that trigger the need to consistently perform behaviors designed to avoid making mistakes, thus resulting in the perfect outcome.
This hierarchy begins with situations that trigger the least amount of discomfort, culminating in experiences that trigger a strong need to behave in a perfectionistic manner.
If the perfectionistic theme involved a fear of making mistakes in front of others, a sample Exposure exercise might include the following hierarchy: (1) Intentionally arrive for a medical appointment on the wrong day; (2) Purposely leave your wallet in the car prior to entering a line at the grocery store; (3) Have guests over for dinner, and cook a difficult meal you have never prepared in the past; and (4) Give a presentation regarding material unfamiliar to you, in front of important people you have never met.
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.