In the industrialized culture we live in, working too much is often seen as a good thing. And often, it does lead to promotions, good grades, success, and achievement. Who doesn’t want that?!
The truth is that working too much and too hard can come at a high cost. And it may be driven by a belief system that is hidden within our psyche. This belief system is perfectionism. Perfectionism can cause us to work harder than necessary and eventually can get in the way of living a healthy life.
So how can we know if perfectionism is a problem for us, and what can we do about it?
First, let’s understand it.
3 Core Aspects of Perfectionism
- Excessive striving: perfectionistic individuals usually strive to an extreme extent to achieve their goals. Think of a grade school peer who wanted an A+ in every class (not even an A!). If you or someone you know strives excessively to reach their high-bar goals, that might be a sign of perfectionism.
- Achievement-based self-worth: perfectionistic individuals define their self-worth based on their achievements. So that peer from grade school would determine how valuable and worthy he is based only on his grades and performance. The Catch-22 here is that perfectionistic individuals constantly raise the bar of their goals after achieving them, which tends to set them up for failure and low self-worth in the long run.
- Rigidity: perfectionistic individuals often have a hard time being flexible. This leads to a lot of rigidity in goals and routines and often causes emotional distress and strain in personal relationships. It can also cause perfectionists to work harder than necessary simply because they find it difficult to relax their own rules around achievement.
How to Recognize Maladaptive Perfectionism
Look for the following warning signs:
- Working extremely hard and all the time, not only during demanding periods
- Experiencing difficulty in changing routines or adapting to new routines (especially during transitions to a new job, new city, new apartment, new commute, etc.)
- Experiencing difficulty in showing flexibility or spontaneity
- Missing social commitments due to rigidity around sticking to routines
- Experiencing relationship conflict or strain due to rigid routines
- Experiencing significant emotional distress when forced to break or change routines (e.g. during a work trip)
Tips for Reducing Perfectionism
- One of the most effective ways to reduce maladaptive perfectionism is to practice flexibility in small ways. Try taking a different commute to work or walking a different route in your neighborhood. Or, while on vacation, try leaving one day unplanned; choose activities spontaneously as you go.
- Challenge yourself to tolerate the feelings that come with changing routines. You may not feel comfortable taking a different route to work because you might worry about being late. Tolerate that discomfort as best you can. Generally, the more we try tolerating discomfort, the better we get at it.
- Use some mindfulness or relaxation techniques when you feel discomfort about changing routines or goals. (See our mindfulness guide for some help.) These will help you tolerate the discomfort that can come with practicing flexibility and spontaneity by lowering your physiological arousal levels.
- Think about self-worth. How do you define self-worth in yourself? And worth in others? Is there a double standard? How do you think others define self-worth? It’s important to not base your worth on achievement and performance. Try to factor in the multifaceted richness of life. For example, an accountant may need to adjust his exercise routine temporarily during tax season based on other work demands, which doesn’t necessarily reflect his self-worth or value.
- Practice self-compassion. It can be really difficult to follow the tips described above for someone with perfectionism. Pat yourself on the back for just taking each step.
For professional assistance with maladaptive perfectionism, contact us at the Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.