Labeling someone a perfectionist is a judgment call, with one person’s “high standards” another person’s “perfectionism.”
But at high levels, “you know it when you see it,” said Martin Antony, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, who talked about strategies to deal with perfectionism on Friday at the 42nd annual conference of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies in Orlando, Fl.
“Perfectionism is a personality trait, like a tendency to be a risk taker, a tendency to be easy going,” he said. “A perfectionist’s tendency is to have very high standards, very rigid standards, and when people don’t meet them, it may create anxiety and depression,” he said. “It can cause difficulty in relationships if you hold high standards for others.”
People with depression are more likely to be perfectionists than those without, he said. “Anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders are all associated with perfectionism,” he says. There are no prevalence rates for the trait, but it’s safe to say it’s common.
The good news? Education about the trait and cognitive strategies can help people come to terms with the problem, decrease the tendency and improve their lives, said Antony, who co-wrote When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism, due to be updated and reissued in February 2009 by New Harbinger Publications.
The Scope of Perfectionism
Some people are perfectionists across a wide range of their lives, Antony finds, while others hold themselves to impossibly high standards only in one area, such as work or home or their exercise routine.
One woman he counseled would sit down at the beginning of the year and schedule every weekend activity through the entire year, he says. She also needed to have her children’s books well organized on the bookshelf and to adhere to a regular household routine, such as baking cookies every Friday.
Another woman welcomed her husband’s help around the house, but would reload the dishwasher every time her husband did it first, complaining he didn’t use the space effectively enough.
Antony has counseled musicians and athletes who are perfectionistic about their music and their sport, rigidly adhering to a practice or workout schedule and feeling badly if their performances are not up to par. But they often don’t have those kinds of high standards for other areas of their lives such as their relationships.
In some ways, society encourages us to be perfectionists, he said. “The world encourages people to be continually improving, so perfectionism is understandable. There is always this subtle push to improve, which probably makes people more anxious. If you’ve had a good profit one year, that’s not good enough. There’s always a lot of pressure to do better.”
High Standards or Perfectionistic?
Having high standards can be helpful and mentally healthy, Antony said, so it’s important to distinguish between the high standards that could promote your career or a relationship from pathological perfectionism.
For instance, “it’s good to clean up your house,” he said. “In an organized house, you can find things more easily.” You’ve probably gone too far, however, if your house is so clean and organized that someone comes over to visit and moving a sofa pillow out of place unglues you.
A writer who interviews thoroughly and writes and rewrites a story or a book is productive and professional, Antony said. But one who over interviews, spends tons of time rewriting without much improvement, or procrastinates and misses a deadline because he fears it isn’t yet perfect, is probably a perfectionist, Antony said.
Strategies to Reduce Perfectionism
Here’s how to reduce perfectionistic tendencies, according to Antony, who also describes these strategies in his book.
- Challenge your thoughts. “Rather than assuming one’s beliefs are true, we encourage people to question their beliefs,” he said. Does a work project have to be done perfectly, even if it is past deadline? Does the house always have to be spotless or can you let it go a bit, especially if you have been sick?
- Step back. Antony asks those who are perfectionists to ask themselves: “How might someone else look at this situation?” or “Would I hold the same high standards for someone else as for myself?”
- Imagine less-than-perfect situations and outcomes. He suggests people ask themselves what would happen if a situation were less than perfect. Back to that out-of-place pillow. He suggests asking “So what?” As people walk through their reactions, and expose themselves to more and more imperfect situations, they become desensitized, he finds. Eventually, they can lower their standards.
“Treatment usually takes 10 or 15 sessions,” Antony said. Some people see improvement much more quickly; others take longer.
Reducing Perfectionism: Self-Help
Getting help from a mental health professional in addition to following the self-help strategies may be the best approach, Antony said, citing research from Flinders University in Australia that compared self-help strategies such as those suggested by Antony with guided self-help, with the same strategies guided by a mental health professional.
Both approaches — self-help alone and guided self-help — were found to be effective in reducing perfectionism in the group of 49 people, equally divided between the two approaches. But the guided group had more improvement in reducing their perfectionist-associated depression and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, according to a report published in 2007 in Behavior Research and Therapy.
Source: Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies