Perfection. Wouldn’t it be nice? We have all heard of it and many of us desire it, but what are the consequences of embarking on a pursuit for perfection?
Firstly, it is important to distinguish between adaptive (helpful) and maladaptive (unhelpful) perfectionism. We have all heard the words, “yeah they’re a total perfectionist”. Maybe this was in reference to a school assignment being handed in the day before it was due or perhaps a night out with the fellas was missed in order to get a good night’s rest for an early start the next morning. These are examples of adaptive perfectionism, which reflect motivation, forward planning and self-belief. In contrast, maladaptive perfectionism involves self-criticism and unrelenting standards that can significantly impact ones performance, professional attainment and social and emotional well being.
Let’s think about Jack, who is in Year 11 and trying to start his English essay due next week. Each time Jack sits down to start his essay he feels his stomach sink and muscles tense. His hands start to tingle and he notices his heart beating in his chest. Jack’s mind starts racing and he finally says to himself, “I can’t do this”, and slides his books off the table. We can see that Jack’s essay has triggered a strong emotional reaction, which may suggest unhelpful perfectionism characterized by several common negative thinking patterns:
Crystal-balling: Jack predicts what will happen next, that is that the work won’t get done.
Generalizing: Jack attributes his present difficulties to reflect poorly on his global capabilities.
Catastrophising: Jack believes that he may get dropped a class, receive a detention or never achieve admission into TAFE or University.
Black/white: Jack thinks that his assignment will either come together easily and he will “succeed”, or he will fail miserably.
Emotional reasoning: Because Jack feels anxious, it must be a disaster!
Ultimately, in this moment Jack has forgotten the times when he handled similar situations and his ability to engage in work now has been impaired by worry about what may happen later.
Perfection may be characterized by:
- A tendency to put off important things, even when this causes distress;
- Avoidance of unfamiliar or challenging situations where performance may be evaluated;
- A sensitivity to feedback and evaluation;
- Becoming upset, irritable and anxious about making mistakes; and
- Giving up on tasks easily or getting delayed by a tendency to start things over.
Now, we can ALL relate to the above examples from time to time, however when unhelpful perfectionism becomes a problem one may experience:
- Heightened stress, anxiety and low mood;
- Decrease motivation;
- Procrastination and avoidance;
- Guilt for putting things off;
- Poor time-management and disorganisation;
- Needing frequent reassurance from others;
- Reduced immune system and more frequent illness;
- Reduced productivity and goal attainment.
So how may we reduce unhelpful perfectionism?
- Be mindful of your ‘self-talk’. Particularly when under stress, don’t hesitate to take out your metaphorical magnifying glass if you need to challenge the evidence and helpfulness of your thoughts;
- Never forget the many shades of grey in life. Keep perspective and acknowledge that failure is a healthy and necessary part of life;
- Celebrate success, but regularly praise and reward your efforts;
- List the benefits and consequences of your perfectionism;
- Set SMARTY goals, (i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Framed and Yours!)
A note on reducing perfectionistic thinking and behaviour in children:
- Encourage perseverance and reward effort. This enables children to push themselves beyond their comfort zone by reducing the perceived consequence of “failure”, therefore fostering emotional resilience and helping a young person to keep some much needed perspective;
- Discourage competitiveness and foster individuality. For example, bolster personal strengths and interests;
- Promote balance between social, academic, physical health and recreational activities;
- Teach systematic problem solving, planning and organizational skills; and
- Be mindful of what you are modelling through your direct and indirect communication, because children are extremely observant!
“YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS YOURSELF YESTERDAY”
Greatness can only develop by successfully responding to adversity. Our role models teach us that risk is necessary for learning and thus, failure partner’s success. It takes courage to step into the unknown, perseverance to stay there and humility to graciously accept defeat with self-kindness. So how will you celebrate the achievement of your next ‘failure’ and look upon this as undisputed evidence of your own pursuit for excellence?
Mathew Pfeiffer, Registered Psychologist at The Resilience Centre