The perfection of being imperfect – Dealing with perfectionism
By Savina Akoumianaki
Do expressions like “I can do it better” or “that was not my best” sound familiar to you? Or maybe you procrastinate a lot? Perfectionism is not itself a primary disorder, but it can be a sign of an anxiety disorder and more often of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can also be associated with an increased risk for developing depression, anger problems and eating disorders. Even if perfectionism is not a disorder itself, it can cause many psychological, interpersonal and professional problems in the life of the individual experiencing it.
When reading articles about perfectionism some may wonder why it is considered a problem for someone, for example, to care if their books are kept in perfect stacks. The answer is that it isn’t a problem. The problem comes when they become very angry or stressed out when the books are not perfectly stacked or in a specific order – so much that they can no longer think clearly or feel relaxed.
Which direction do you follow?
They are different types of perfectionism. Some people are “inwardly directed perfectionists” and tend to set high personal standards of success.
Others are “externally directed perfectionists”. In that case the person expects others to be perfect in their working performance.
Finally there are “socially directed perfectionists”, people who believe that others expect perfection from them.
Where is my mind?
People who suffer from a type from perfectionism usually have some kind of dysfunctional negative automatic thoughts. More specifically they have thoughts of:
All or nothing!
All life experiences are divided into two categories: all are wrong or all are rosy. There is no middle ground. For a perfectionist a result is only either bad or perfect. Everything that is not perfect is simply not good enough.
The idea of “must” guides their slightest activity. Actual interests or desires are lost from the scene. Perfectionists often use the words “must” or “have to” in their daily speech.
A single negative event is sufficient for everything to collapse like a house of cards. There is no room for mistakes. Perfectionists cannot see different or nuanced aspects of something, not even within themselves. If they don’t achieve their own strict standards and lofty goals then they believe that they are not good at anything.
The vicious cycle of perfectionism
The first mistake individuals usually make is to set high and not easily achievable goals. This leads to failure due to not knowing where to start. The pressure to achieve the goal and the inevitable continuing failure reduce the productivity and effectiveness of the individual. Then the individuals are strict with themselves and self-blaming, resulting in low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. They then completely give up on their goals and set new ones so the cycle can be repeated.
Did you know?
• Fear of failure for perfectionists equals the fear of making a mistake. This fear leads them to miss opportunities and fail.
• Perfectionists tend to believe that their own efforts to achieve a goal are futile, inconclusive and insufficient. On the other hand they believe that others can achieve things with minimal effort and few mistakes while maintaining self-confidence and avoiding emotional stress.
• Another fear perfectionists have is the fear of rejection. They do not want others to discover their mistakes because they think they will no longer be accepted or loved.
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
If someone understands that perfectionism makes their life dysfunctional or difficult, they can start by setting more achievable goals and rewarding themselves for their efforts and the realization of small goals. It is also important to stop having negative thoughts by replacing them with alternative, more positive and realistic thoughts. A daily program that consists of engaging in hobbies and leisure activities may also help. All these actions will lead the person to believe that they are someone worthy of the love of themselves and others. Finally, they will understand that there are more important things than being perfect ¬– which is unreachable anyway – such as happiness and relaxation.
Savina is a licensed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist and author of technical articles, theatrical plays and self help texts. She has served as a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist and Systemic Therapist at health centers, a Clinical Psychologist at hospitals and clinics and as a teacher at NGOs. She has also worked as a researcher for the European Social Fund. Her research projects have been featured at conferences and published in scientific journals.