We often use the term ‘perfectionist’ in a light-hearted way, to refer to a friend or colleague who’s being that bit too fussy about something. However, research suggests that having higher levels of perfectionism as a personality trait is one of the strongest factors that can reduce our resilience and make us vulnerable to the negative impact of stress.
At its heart, perfectionism describes the tendency to hold rigid, unrelenting, high standards. These are the kind of high standards that don’t bend in response to stress and don’t allow for excuses. It has been suggested that there are three types of perfectionism:
- Self-oriented perfectionism – where we impose strict and high standards on ourselves,
- Other-oriented perfectionism – where we impose strict and high standards on others, and
- Other-oriented perfectionism – where we believe that other people demand overly high standards from us.
These three types of perfectionism cluster together, which means that if you are high in one, you are likely to be high in others.
What’s this got to do with resilience?
If having more of this trait makes us vulnerable to stress, what can this tell us about resilience? Well, every positive factor has a negative opposite – and every negative factor has a positive opposite. So if more perfectionism is bad, then less is good; and if perfectionism describes rigid, high standards, then the other end of this spectrum is mental flexibility.
It’s not high standards that are the problem
Let’s be clear, reducing perfectionism isn’t about lowering high standards. Having high standards is often a strength, driving people to make great achievements. The problem is not the standards themselves but the fact that they are rigid and inflexible. Aiming high when you’re feeling strong can be positive, but insisting on reaching the same standard when you’re in the wake of personal loss or under unusually high pressure can be exhausting.
There’s a need to maintain personal equilibrium, to adjust standards in response to what is manageable, given the situation. Doing this can ensure that you bend without breaking and feel ready to return to full strength when your situation changes. On the other hand, piling on the pressure to meet overly high standards at all times is a recipe for burnout.
Types of inflexible thinking
There are different thinking habits we can fall into that feed perfectionist thinking and reduce our ability to be flexible. These kinds of thinking habits are inflexible, rigid, and demanding. Some examples are:
- Black-and-white thinking. This is where you lose sight of the grey areas, and go into a mode that is ‘all or nothing’. The kind of thoughts you might have are: ‘Anything less than the best is unacceptable’ and ‘Asking for help makes me a failure’.
- Catastrophic thinking. This is where you blow up the consequences and believe that if something goes wrong then it will be unmanageable. Some catastrophic thoughts are: ‘If I fail the exam, my life is over’ and ‘If I don’t get it right, I’ll never be able to face my parents’.
- Probability overestimation. This is where you overestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes. Some thoughts you might have are: ‘Although I revised for the exam all week, it won’t be enough’ and ‘There’s no point in entering the competition because I’d never win’.
- Should statements – This is where you put yourself under a tyranny of rules. These are rigid and do not adapt or relax when under times of pressure. Some thoughts you might have are: ‘I should always be polite’ and ‘I should always foresee potential problems’.
Some ways to enhance mental flexibility
Notice when you are falling into these thinking habits and pushing yourself too hard. Some useful questions to ask yourself are:
- Am I feeling more irritable or distracted than usual?
- Am I showing any physical signs of stress? Am I more tired than usual or struggling with sleep?
- Is anyone else telling me that I’m pushing myself too hard to meet these standards?
It may be useful to keep a brief diary. Write down the events of the day, your thoughts or interpretations of these, and how you feel emotionally at the end of the day.
This will help you understand your own patterns of behaviour, how you interpret events, and how this affects you emotionally. For example:
Do something to lift your mood
Psychological research suggests that negative emotions narrow the focus of our attention. This means that we are more likely to get stuck thinking about our problems and lose sight of the bigger picture. By contrast, positive emotions can open the scope of our attention. They help us to think more broadly and to find different ways of looking at our situation.
Perfectionistic thinking is closely linked with negative emotion: It is unrelenting and demanding, and it rarely helps us to feel good. So, a good first step in tackling this can be to do something that makes you feel more positive. This might be doing something you enjoy, like seeing friends or going to a film, or something active, like exercise. You might also want to engage in the Broad-Minded Affective Coping Procedure (BMAC), a therapeutic exercise designed to boost mood.
The key thing is to do something that will give you a quick lift, as this will help you to think of, and implement, change in the longer run.
Set yourself some new, realistic, and flexible standards
It can be useful to write yourself a new list of standards and statements and to read these when you know you are pushing yourself too hard. Some examples of these are:
- It’s not possible to be perfect all the time, and that’s OK.
- My own well-being is more important than my achievements.
- It’s OK to say the wrong thing sometimes; I’m only human.
- It’s not possible to be in a good mood all the time.
- I can only do my best; I can’t control all possible outcomes.
Think about your fears from someone else’s perspective
Confide your worries and fears to close friends or family who care about you and whose opinions you find helpful. Later on, when you are stressed and you think you may be pushing yourself too hard, you can then draw on these conversations in your mind. Think back to them and try and see your current situation from their perspectives. Ask yourself questions like:
- If I told X how I had failed to achieve my usual standard, what would they say?
- What advice would X give me about my current worry?
- What advice would I give X if they had this same problem?
Test your fears
Sometimes we need to change how we behave to change our thinking. In particular, it can be useful to challenge our fears in small ways. For example:
- If you insist on always being early, try arriving at an event 10 minutes late.
- If you hold very high standards about your appearance, wear something that is old, creased, or has a stain on it.
- If have a very strict exercise regime, try doing no exercise for a week.
- If you have very high standards for how you behave socially, try saying something you would normally not allow yourself to do so.
Before you test out your fear, write down a list of what you are worried will happen. What do you think will go wrong as a result? Then rate each fear on (1) how likely you think it is to happen (from 0 [not at all likely] to 100 [will definitely happen]) and (2) how bad the impact will be (from 0 [I’ll barely notice it] to 100 [It will affect every area of my life for good]).
After you’ve completed the test, read your list of fears. Did they happen? For those that happened, how bad was the outcome in reality? Rate it again from 0 to 100. Compare your ‘before’ and ‘after’ lists.
When we do this, we often realise how bad our fears were before we started. Afterwards, even though we may still be afraid of reducing our high standards, we see how that fear has been reduced. In CBT, we call this a ‘behavioural experiment’.
Evidence for reducing perfectionism and enhancing flexibility
Enhancing flexible thinking is a key feature of most cognitive-behavioural interventions, but recent years have seen the development of some interventions focused specifically on developing this. There is now a strong body of evidence to suggest that these interventions are both successful in reducing perfectionism and also in boosting overall mental well-being.
A recent meta-analysis and systematic review identified eight studies that had investigated this. It reported large effect sizes for studies reducing perfectionism and found evidence that these interventions also reduce anxiety and depression.
More information on some of these techniques and other ideas for overcoming perfectionism can be found here.
Judith Johnson, PhD is a clinical psychologist who is based at both the Institute of Psychological Sciences of the University of Leeds and the Bradford Institute of Health Research.