Welcome to episode three of our adventure/case study into perfectionism. Previously on this adventure we defined perfectionism (relentless striving for extremely high standards; judging our self-worth based on our ability to achieve these standards; and, continuing to set demanding standards despite the consequences associated with striving for them), we did a cost-benefits analysis and then we looked at some hypotheses for how perfectionism develops. And because it’s pretty much impossible to know anyone better than you know yourself, the case study we’ve looked at is me.
Over the past two blogs we learnt about how at its heart, perfectionism is about trying to earn approval and acceptance. And I hypothesized that due to some early experiences where I was praised (and this was at no fault of anyone around me!) for my achievements and performance, I became vulnerable to some perfectionistic tendencies. Somewhere along the messy and rocky hike of development I adopted a somewhat dangerous and debilitating belief system about myself and the world: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.
And in adulthood, there were many things that maintained and kept these beliefs going.
Firstly, by their very nature the unrelenting high standards that make up perfectionism keep perfectionism going. Because the standards are so high that they can very rarely be achieved all the time, it’s more common for us perfectionists to draw the conclusion that we have failed or did not try hard enough, then conclude that the standard was too high.
When I was in Grade 12, my unrelenting standards were at an all time high. I set standards for myself that were incredibly high and if I didn’t achieve them – which I didn’t always – they were interpreted as failure and requiring more effort next time round. And I would refocus and work even harder the next time round. I think there was a perception that I was like “super smart” but this totally wasn’t the case. I was just working my arse off to try and achieve something that probably wasn’t even possible. I didn’t have much of a life in high school. Ask Trudy – I was a nerd.
Secondly, there’s the times that the high standards continue to be achieved, despite the costs. For a long time I held a pretty rigid belief that a task was not completed unless it was perfect. And I did everything I could to make sure I stuck to this belief.
For example, when I was near the end of my clinical psychology training I was adamant that there was no way that I could take the appropriate case notes during the therapy session. Instead, I would spend a lot of time after hours writing very lengthy and detailed notes on each of the sessions to make sure I hadn’t left out any important details. Or any details at all. My supervisor at the time would be constantly encouraging me to take notes in session, to free up my time for other things, like preparation etc. But I really struggled. What if I made a mistake? What if I left something out? What if it was a mess and illegible? So instead of learning to do something efficiently and effectively, I continued to meet my own rigid rule and standard – but at a cost that required a large amount of time, effort and energy.
If we adopt a cognitive-behavioural approach to looking at perfectionism there some relatively common unhelpful thinking styles that perfectionists are prone.
It’s well known that us perfectionists tend to be extremely self-critical, particularly if the high standards are unable to be met. Statements such as “I am an idiot” and “This work is garbage” and “You will never be good at this” were things my brain told myself on an hourly basis. Subconsciously and automatically. Having these thoughts about myself really helped to keep some of my favourite challenging emotions in action. Feelings like guilt and stress and anxiety. Feelings that generally make you say even more nasty things to yourself. And thus the cycle continues.
Research confirms that the most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in the way - Thomas Greenspon
And it wasn’t just my thinking and goals that kept my perfectionism in action. I had some very good behaviours in place as well. More often then not, I wasn't even aware that I was engaging in them and that were related to my perfectionism.
I have a very long history of being very, very good at avoiding things. Not all things, but the things I wanted to avoid, I avoided really well. For me, things were very all or nothing. I could really throw myself into something if I felt it had a good chance at success. Conversely, if I thought there was a risk of failure, I avoided it like Pete Evans avoids unactivated nuts. And studies back this up, finding that perfectionists tend to be risk-averse, which can inhibit innovation and creativity. But this all or avoidant behavior pattern maintained my perfectionism because it never gave me the opportunity to test out whether my perfectionistic thinking was true. If I didn't give myself the chance to fail then how could I learn that I might be worth more than what I accomplish?
So there’s a picture of how my standards, my automatic thoughts and my behaviours all contributed very nicely to a pattern of perfectionism.
But I am no island.
Let's not forget that western culture is not all that keen on celebrating failure/learning. Instead we like to reinforce certain standards that are difficult to live up to. The perfect body/relationship/vocation/children/vacation/diet/house/etc. And it is here that these false standards of the game of Perfectionism begin again. Even if we could win this game of entrapment, would we be content?
Tune in next week for episode four. What happens when the game of perfectionism breaks down?