When perfect just isn’t good enough | Got Anxiety?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the first in a four-part series from the Barmanns about perfectionism, providing a brief overview of the topic and how it differs from those who are high achievers.
People who are high achievers impose pressure on themselves to succeed. They set challenging goals and work hard to achieve their high standards.
This manner of thinking and behaving is necessary for students, athletes and others in order to be successful across a variety of endeavors.
Without setting high standards, we achieve less. However, there are significant differences between high achievers and those who exhibit perfectionistic traits when working on important tasks.
Let’s examine these differences, and how they are manifested within oneself, as well as when interacting with others.
HIGH ACHIEVEMENT ORIENTATION
When treating those who exhibit perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors, our first step is to help the person construct a new definition of perfectionism.
The one we typically encourage is — “The healthy pursuit of excellence.” This definition is quite different from, “Striving for a mistake-free performance across a majority of tasks.”
High achievers take responsibility for their successes, as well as during times when they are not successful. They accept their mistakes, and make reasonable attempts to not repeat these same mistakes.
Although they set high standards, these individuals are willing to be flexible enough to adjust these standards when necessary, and also display the ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors when dealing with success, as well as failure.
Following success, the high achiever feels satisfaction, and does not focus on minor mistakes made en route to victory, nor do they minimize the importance of their success by feeling the need to “top it” in the near future by setting even higher standards for the purpose of feeling a “more deserved” sense of achievement.
Most definitions concerning someone who is viewed as a perfectionist pertain to those who impose standards for themselves that are unreasonable and typically unobtainable.
They constantly strive (strain) to reach these unrealistic goals, and measure their self-worth exclusively on personal achievement. As it turns out, their striving (as opposed to a healthy pursuit) typically results in procrastination and/or impaired performance.
The solution, striving for perfection, has now become the problem. Current research indicates that perfectionism is displayed along three separate, yet interrelated dimensions, or styles:
1. Self-Oriented: This perfectionistic style is the most common, and involves one’s tendency to self-impose standards that are excessive, unrealistic, and virtually impossible to attain. When unsuccessful at reaching these standards, the individual focuses solely on mistakes made, engages in intense self-criticism, and experiences feelings of eroding self-worth which often sets the stage for negative emotional states such as depression and anxiety.
2. Other-Oriented: It is not uncommon for those who possess other-oriented perfectionism to also impose unrealistic standards onto others, such as co-workers, friends and family. These individuals have a very difficult time delegating tasks to others, assuming that the task will not be completed to his/her exceedingly high expectations. This form of perfectionism typically results in anger and relationship problems.
3. Socially Perceived: This form of perfectionism results in a tendency to assume that others are imposing onto them unrealistic expectations, thus triggering the belief that the only way in which to gain the approval of others is to meet their unreachable standards. This way of thinking creates a great deal of anxiety, and is most often associated with Social Anxiety, in which the person becomes overly concerned with thoughts that others view him or her as inept, awkward, etc. unless a mistake-free (perfect) social interaction has been achieved.
Whether perfectionism is displayed as Self-Oriented, Other-Oriented, or Socially Perceived, it is clear that those who possess perfectionistic traits all share the following primary characteristics:
Self-standards which are excessive, unreasonable, and typically unattainable,
Display an excessive need for extreme organization and structure,
Exhibit an intense concern regarding the possibility of making mistakes, and the consequences associated with these mistakes,
Constantly doubt having performed a task in an adequate (less then perfect) manner; and
Possess an intolerance for uncertainty.
These common denominators seen among perfectionistic individuals typically result in the experience of several negative emotions such as anger, depression and anxiety, as well as serious difficulties with social-interpersonal relationships.
Part 2 of this series will discuss specific perfectionistic beliefs that play a major role in triggering these problems.
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.