Are you a perfectionist?
The above is the cognitive behavioural formulation for perfectionism. CBT therapists use this to explain the behaviour of a client who displays perfectionistic tendencies. Of course, every client is unique but when it comes to perfectionism, there are some behaviours and trends that tend to be similar. Such as the wish to strive and achieve and to place a lot of importance on this. Despite achieving, and often being successful, for a perfectionist it is never quite good enough and the constant striving can end up burning a person out. Their goals are unrealistic and this can lead to anxiety and depression.
Let me explain the above formulation:
Someone who is a perfectionist often has an underlying belief that they aren’t worthy or aren’t good enough. This could come from early messages from parents or other significant authority figures (such as a teacher at school) and this serves as the impetus to try harder and to keep striving. They often feel worthless if they aren’t acheiving or doing something. The role of a CBT therapist is to challenge this thought connection between self worth and achievement. It is far healthier to see yourself as a worthy person just as you are without having to prove yourself by achieving something. Feeling fundamentally valuable as a person is important for peace of mind and a healthy self esteem.
Perfectionists also tend to have inflexible standards, Their thinking is very black and white. They see themsleves as good or bad, a success or not a success. There seems to be very little grey inbetween. Not only is this thinking unrealistic but it is unhelpful as it leads to anxiety and stress. Life isn’t so black and white and rigid thinking and very high standards lead to misery.
They are self imposed standards that actually lower the quality of life rather than improving it. The perfectionist mistakenly believes that if they keep striving and achieving thay they will eventualy arrive at this place where they feel worthy and can sit back and relax. The reality is that this never happens – they never arrive at this place. Instead they keep going round in circles, going through the above stages (in the formulation over and over).
So they keep striving, they have rigid thinking and the three outcomes are:
- They temporarily achieve their standards but then see this as too easy and readjust their standards, making them harder.
- They fail to meet their standards and then engage in self critical talk, reinforcing their negative views of themselves (I knew I was a failure).
- They avoid trying at all. Procrastination is a very common behaviour of perfectionists a they set such high standards. The fear of not meeting these standards, thereby proving to themselves they aren’t good enough leads to procrastination.
CBT teaches clients to become more relaxed in their approach and to challenge their unhelpful thinking around being perfect. No one is perfect and wheh you accept yourself as you are, you feel less urgency to prove yourself by doing things to prove your worth.
Perfectionists tend to compare themselves to others, are often “Type A” personalities and tend to be stressed out by life. Society unfortunately doesn’t help as we tend to be conditioned to achieve and not to just “be” at times. We feel guilt if we take time out.
CBT teaches you to reject this philosophy and to be more at ease with yourself and focus more on your strengths than your weaknesses. Perfectionists are highly in tune with their weaknesses and often dismiss their strengths – this is a cognitive bias that creates stress and misery, We have a choice about how we wish to see ourselves as we can choose to be more ‘slap dash’. In fact part of therapy involves asking clients to deliberately make mistakes – such as sending an email with spelling errors or to cut corners here and there.
This shows perfectionists that it is possible to strive less and still be okay. Often the way we see ourselves is down to our early messages received when children and we can adapt these outdated thoughts.
Once perfectionism has less of a hold , people find they are far less stressed and have a much better quality of life. It can be hard to let go of the pattern and takes repetitive practise but it’s worth keeping at it.
Be a more flexible thinker, make mistakes, cut corners here and there and see that the world still turns and others don’t treat your differently. Letting go of perfectionism means accepting yourself as you are and rejecting society’s pressure to always be doing. Let go of that self imposed pressure and reclaim your happiness and peace of mind. Get off that ‘treadmill’ and stop being a slave to the never ending pressure!!
If you find you cannot shake free from perfectionism, see a cognitive behavioural therapist who will help you free yourself from this self destructive pattern.
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