At first pass, being called a perfectionist sounds fantastic. After all, isn’t it about setting high standards, working hard, and doing what’s needed to strive for excellence? What’s wrong with that? In fact, perfectionism is often associated with conscientiousness, which is the Big Five psychology trait most correlated to success.
But for those afflicted with perfectionism, there is nothing great about it. It’s pure hell - the constant, relentless persecution of never being able to meet your standards, always following rigid rituals, and never being satisfied no matter what you do.
So, why does it persist?
Because at some point, these perfectionist tendencies provided positive benefits. Whether in school or at work, you get rewarded for being thorough, detailed, and producing high-quality results. And it feels good to be acknowledged for your accomplishments.
Over time, these habits get corrupted and lead you astray, especially if you have been successful. This change is what makes perfectionism so tough to address. It feeds on your memory of past glory.
And given the recent trend towards perfectionism, this is of growing concern. Perfectionists are highly likely to suffer from various mental and physical health problems, such as:
- Chronic fatigue
- Increased mortality
Not to mention, they also endure counterproductive habits, such as:
- Inability to make decisions
- Excessive fear of trying new things
- Slow delivery due to excessive concern over mistakes
The good news is that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approaches have shown strong evidence in curbing negative perfectionist tendencies. CBT theorizes that thoughts are responsible for behaviors. So, by identifying, challenging, and then addressing cognitive distortions, you short-circuit the problematic behaviors by nixing them before they can take off.
This article identifies 5 mental traps of perfectionism and the 5 ways to get rid of them to lead a more healthy and productive life.
5 Mental Traps
These 5 generate a lot of stress and anxiety for perfectionists and are also responsible for many problematic behaviors.
1. Thinking in All or Nothing Terms
Perfectionists view the world as binary, either a success or a failure. There is no middle ground.
So, when setting goals, you either hit them or not. And the bar is often high. That way, there is no doubt when excellence is achieved.
For tasks, it’s following the steps precisely as outlined with no deviations. If you don’t do 100% of what’s listed, then it’s a failure. There is no partial credit, no compromise, no substitutions. Success is based on you checking every box. Anything less doesn’t count or is viewed as cheating.
Examples of this trap include:
- Using “should” or “must” in describing actions. You must read 100 pages in an hour. You should start your mornings at 5 am to be productive. This mentality comes from when you read an expert’s recommendations and feel that you will be successful if you do exactly as they say.
- Creating rules or processes to achieve your goals/tasks and following them rigidly. Like the above, the rationale is that if you follow the “recipe,” you should get the outcome. Any deviation is to risk failure. And if you fail to follow 100%, you are “cheating.” Furthermore, if by some miracle success happens, that is dumb luck, so you can’t rely on that to save you in the future.
- Treating partial credit as zero. This trap doesn’t care how hard you tried or how close to the goal you are. It argues that no one remembers the 4th place or even the 2nd place winner. If you’re not the first one to cross the finish line, your efforts mean nothing.
The power of this cognitive distortion is its simplicity and certainty. Ignore for the moment whether your standard or ritual is reasonable. Doing all or nothing thinking is straightforward. Just do it, and by implication, you will be successful. Or, recognizing that it’s not possible, don’t do anything to avoid failure. If you can’t do it right, then don’t do it at all.
Another reason all or nothing exists is it comes from a time when things were simple or easy. So, doing 100% was not challenging. As a result, this thinking can become entrenched. After all, it worked back then, so why shouldn’t it work now?
This trap causes problems because success isn’t always binary, especially for large or complex efforts. Yes, there are situations where you need to hit 100%. For example, if you get cancer, you want the surgeon to remove all the tumors.
But there are many cases where success has multiple components. Some factors might be more important than others, so you don’t have to hit all of them. For example, it may be more critical a project hit 80% of its scope but stay on schedule and within cost, versus hitting 100% of its target but taking more time and money.
In short, all or nothing doesn’t care about nuances. Its power is in its enforced simplicity. But it is a blunt instrument.
And its costs are high. If the rules/standards are too rigid or challenging to achieve, you risk failure. So, this style of thinking generates an enormous amount of stress.
Also, morale takes a significant hit if you fall short. Self-blame occurs since there is no question about the “righteousness” of the standards. The fault lies with you as you must have done something wrong. This blame creates a vicious cycle as perfectionists compensate by setting even higher standards or promising to be more rigorous in following the rules.
On the other hand, some people avoid the stress and go in the opposite direction. They refuse to do less than “perfect” work, then get nothing accomplished. Yes, you make 0 mistakes, but you also score 0 success.
Either way, this trap lowers your chances for excellence because achievement is so rigidly defined. You either hit 100% or don’t bother doing it at all.
2. Overemphasizing Failures Over Wins
This trap centers around perfectionist’s intense fear of mistakes. It’s not unusual for them to view any setback as an epic disaster. It doesn’t matter if what you did was more than anyone else. It doesn’t matter if you have a long track record of success. The point is you failed. Your past achievements are irrelevant.
Illustrations of this thinking:
- Discounting positive results disproportionately. So what if you have 1000 positive reviews; it’s the 5 negative ones you ruminate on. You don’t focus on the fans for their support but spend energy on the discontents.
- Imagining the worst when interpreting the actions of others. You didn’t get the job offer, so you assume the interviewers think you suck. There are several reasons besides the lack of qualifications. It could be that you’re overqualified, or the position had to be closed due to a budget shortfall.
- Checking and rechecking your steps to make sure you didn’t miss anything. You are paranoid that despite being careful, you might have missed something. And that will be the one thing that messes everything up.
- Believing the adverse outcomes are more likely. Related to the previous point, this is thinking Murphy’s law is the norm; if something can go wrong, it will. You feel the universe conspires to mess you up if you’re not doing your absolute best.
This thinking comes from the human tendency for negativity bias. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s natural to be fearful of mistakes as some are fatal. But perfectionists have a more extreme reaction.
The mere presence of a mistake is an anathema. Small or minor, it doesn’t matter. To a perfectionist, all errors are mountain-size in impact.
Part of this is related to a sunk cost bias. Because of your sensitivity to criticism, you set high standards or elaborate rituals to prevent you from making mistakes. This is a lot of work. It takes time, energy, and resources. So, when things are less than perfect, you get upset since your efforts went up in smoke.
Also, you put in these safeguards to protect your reputation. If you screw up, this proves to the world that you’re inadequate or an imposter. You aren’t as good as people think you are.
This trap biases you towards focusing on the negative or avoiding it.
As a result, you become more risk-averse and play it safe. But this can backfire.
Ice skating and gymnastics provide excellent examples of how this can lead you astray. An athlete can choose to go with a less complicated routine, but one with a high chance of being flawless. The complication is judges factor in complexity. If a performance is faultless but simple, it can get fewer points than one that is complicated but has some errors. So, playing it safe doesn’t guarantee success, and it also limits your growth opportunities.
On the flip side, some perfectionists rise to the challenge, but then they devalue their achievement. It’s not unusual for them to hit their goal to have a brief moment of happiness (if there is one) and then move on. The sense of joy is minor since they either view it as not being challenging enough, or it’s just another checkbox on a never-ending journey.
Compare the above to a non-perfectionist. They don’t need to be right all the time. Their emotional security doesn’t depend on having a spotless record or being the perfect role model. When they achieve something, they celebrate it, and when they fail, they feel disappointed but don’t ruminate.
Sure, the perfectionist may argue that the non-perfectionist isn’t as good as they are, but you may find that these folks are infuriatingly content. The perfectionist, in contrast, lives in constant fear of their self-identity being at risk if things go wrong.
3. Focusing on the Gap, Not the Gain
Because of their high standards, perfectionists feel only by achieving them can you prove your value to the world. So, you focus on closing the gap between where you are and where you need to be.
- Making inappropriate social comparisons. It’s not uncommon for perfectionists to feel they should be performing at the level of experts even when they are still newbies. They think that if they do everything right, they should be at the top as soon as possible. This perspective creates angst when your performance falls short.
- Becoming increasingly impatient and short-tempered. Every moment you’re not at the goal increases the fear you won’t make it. So, you keep obsessing on the gap and discount the progress. This rumination leads to tremendous stress and anxiety.
- Exhibiting constant need for approval. Some perfectionists deal with their gap anxiety by always seeking external validation. You want to know it’s ok with where you are since it’s still not where you “need” to be.
Unless you’re fast approaching your goal, you spend most of your time facing a large gap. This view leads to an overwhelming, anxious, and depressing experience. Since all you see is a massive pile of things to do, you can stress out yourself without even starting.
Suppose instead you focus on progress. This viewpoint is less threatening and more positive since you emphasize your advances relative to your starting point. Something is better than nothing.
4. Obsessing About Control
This driving belief is that if you control yourself, others, or your environment, you can be sure of safe passage. By expecting the best of yourself or others, you minimize bad things from happening, ensure high quality, and perform flawlessly.
Some examples of this thinking:
- Having tunnel vision. You focus excessively on details to the point you miss the big picture. This view gets in the way of task completion since you don’t progress until each step is done perfectly. Hence, you run out of time to finish the whole process.
- Becoming anal-retentive. You feel overwhelming responsibility for the outcome, so you make sure everything is “right.” You create rituals. You are specific in what needs to be done to minimize failure. You believe that if the “plan” is followed perfectly, then everything will be fine.
- Difficulty trusting others. You can’t delegate tasks to others since you’re unsure if they will be as careful as you are.
This trap is an example of a good trait gone bad. Self-control is a critical element of conscientiousness.
The issue is overextending this impulse control to your (or other’s) actions. You believe this allows you to control their outcomes. There is a correlation, but that’s not the same as causation.
Your actions generate results. But how the world interacts with them are outcomes. You can write blog articles, but you don’t decide if they go viral. You can only influence outcomes, but you don’t control them. The mistake is believing you have more control than you do.
Two fallouts come from this trap. You spend so much energy over the tasks that you don’t finish or rush things jeopardizing quality. The second is exerting this much control takes enormous energy, accelerating the risks of burnout, anxiety, and stress.
The net result is you pay more than what you gain. You struggle daily under the pressure of a massive inner rulebook, an overgrown sense of duty, and responsibility for something beyond your control.
5. Sacrificing for Excellence
As a perfectionist, you are willing to make the necessary sacrifices for the “greater good” of striving for excellence. Because this is a higher cause, you feel obligated to do your best.
This attitude can produce behaviors like the following:
- Being a workaholic. You put in long hours on both the weekdays and weekends. You don’t take vacations, and if you do, they’re short. You spend time working more than anything else, perhaps even sleeping. Work is always a top priority.
- Having a martyr complex. No one works as hard as you. No one is as diligent, careful, meticulous, etc. When it comes to suffering for the cause, you take first place.
- Can’t relax. There is always something to be worked on. So, the idea of resting or relaxing is viewed as slacking off from more “important” tasks.
While this trap causes many problems such as burnout, exhaustion, and resentment, it also highlights a prominent blind spot for perfectionists - the collateral damage on those around you.
Sacrifice implies you are giving up something not because you want to but because you have to. To you, it’s evident that it’s not fun, but to anyone else, things look different.
They are asking the question, “Why are you doing it?” When you respond for a “higher cause,” like paying the bills, creating a better and secure future, investing in the short term for long-term gain, etc., you overlook certain fundamental truths.
You chose the standards. You chose the rituals. You chose to sacrifice. It was your decision, not theirs.
You can argue that you’re suffering, but the nonperfectionist response is, “Then do something different.” Then you counter, you can’t because this is in service of a cause.
But the reality is you won’t. Settling for less or altering your rituals means admitting fault. Rather than viewing change as adaptation, you see it as admitting failure.
As a result, your perfectionism winds up affecting the people close to you. When you get stressed, they feel the tension. When you don’t spend time with them, it tells them that they are not necessary.
You can argue that it’s temporary, and you will change once things are done. You will have time once you hit your targets. You will be flexible after the pressure is over. But you never hit the targets because your standards are so high. And you can’t adapt, since to do so invites risk, increasing failure.
The harsh reality is you are choosing perfectionism over others, and it never ends unless you stop feeding it.
Think of it this way: imagine having your life run by another perfectionist. One whose standards are different than yours, but they are even more insistent on their practices. How would you feel? Resentment? Stress? Anxiety? Whatever it is, it’s not likely to be a warm, positive emotion.
Well, that’s what folks around you are feeling when you’re “sacrificing for excellence.”
5 Strategies for Changing Thoughts
Now that you’ve seen the mental traps, what can you do?
Cognitive Behavior Therapy provides a variety of solutions with strong scientific evidence of their effectiveness against perfectionism. To reiterate, this approach emphasizes that by countering the thoughts, you can reduce or stop the problematic behaviors. Below are 5 strategies that tackle the different traps mentioned earlier.
1. Challenging the Basis for Your Beliefs
Many times, perfectionists inherit their convictions from friends, families, coworkers, teachers, etc., without question. Or they come from a time when they worked.
For example, schools emphasize there is a right way and a wrong way to doing a lesson. Follow one and you get rewarded. Follow the other and you don’t. You do this for 12+ years, and it should be no surprise you become rigid when following the “rules.”
The techniques below ask you to question whether your beliefs are still valid.
- Hypothesis test. Assess the accuracy of your beliefs and predictions of doom. You can do this by challenging your predictions and seeing if bad things do happen. Do less than what’s expected or modify your rituals. Is the result just a sense of guilt, or were there tangible consequences? Is there some progress, or is it truly a zero if you do less than 100%?
- Reality check. Sometimes what seems reasonable falls apart when you check the facts. For example, having more options can be worse than having fewer, or productivity can be higher with those who work fewer rather than more hours. See if there is a basis for what you believe to be “true.”
- Return on investment. Are you putting more in than you get out? Not everything requires Olympic-level effort. According to Pareto’s Law, 20% of inputs are responsible for 80% of the outputs. Some things are worth more than others. But if you treat everything as important, you waste time on minor elements and not spend enough on the major ones.
The goal is to identify what proof justifies the belief. For these techniques, it’s vital to record what happens and what you’re feeling. When a view is challenged, you want to know if your fears become reality. But you also want to know does it happen consistently or occasionally. If the latter, then you can work on identifying the specific trigger events. Either way, this tells you when it’s appropriate to follow the belief and when to put it aside.
Perfectionism costs a lot to sustain, so you need to see if the “benefits” are worth it.
2. Limiting Your Social Comparisons
As perfectionists tend to be gap-centric, it’s not uncommon for them to compare themselves to more experienced or skilled individuals. You want to be the best, so you emulate the best.
But that approach has several pitfalls:
- Lack of details. No matter how well you study experts, there is always something missing. They may have been doing it for so long that they had forgotten fine details. Or it’s so second nature to them that they know it but can’t explain it. Either way, you may find it difficult to duplicate their success.
- Misleading impressions. The mark of a pro is how easy they make their efforts look. Afterall, what you see is the outcome. What you miss is the long years of blood, sweat, and toil in getting their craft to where it is. You don’t see their setbacks, their deliberate practice, and their dedication. It only looks easy.
- Resource discrepancy. Experts often leverage resources and skills they have now compared to where you are. For example, a millionaire can afford to take more risks and fail often than someone living paycheck to paycheck. So, what works for an expert doesn’t mean it works for you, so the comparison can set up wrong expectations.
You progress faster if you study those who are slightly ahead of you. Chances are they are still learning and improving, so they have a more reliable recollection of what’s working and not. And try not to get too competitive. You are comparing to learn. The hope is to improve yourself, not an ego competition.
3. Understanding What Mistakes Mean
When you think about what a mistake is, the answer is pretty simple, “You did something wrong.” But if you ask why did it happen, common reasons are:
- Not fully comprehending what’s going on- you thought you had it but didn’t get it.
- Misunderstanding what needs to be done -you had a different interpretation of what was being asked.
- Being inattentive.
The point is mistakes are not intentional.
They stem from the simple fact, “You don’t know what you don’t know until you do it.”
Of the 3 reasons above, inattention is the only one that is “possibly” avoidable. But if you look at where carelessness happens, it’s often because something distracted you in the first place.
So to minimize inattention, try the following 3 strategies:
- Create checklists. Checklists minimize process errors by making sure you don’t miss vital elements.
- Use templates. Templates are similar but are more open-ended in that they are “forms” to fill out to make sure that you haven’t forgotten the critical areas. Both checklists and templates are effective because they remind you what’s important. They are also good outlets to release your need for control since you set the standards for quality.
- Cap your review. These documents don’t eliminate mistakes but reduce their likelihood.
Just make sure you don’t go overboard and make them too long.
For dealing with mistakes from not understanding or misinterpretation, the following 2 techniques help.
4. Building Up a Tolerance to Uncertainty and Ambiguity
One reason perfectionists fixate on control is that you don’t like uncertainty or ambiguity. This is not unreasonable as uncertainty is related to the fear of the unknown. You don’t know what will happen, and given your negativity bias, the lack of certainty increases the risk of failure.
Unfortunately, you can never be free of uncertainty or ambiguity, but your sensitivity to them can be reduced through the following approaches:
- Reduce via repeated exposure. Used in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, desensitization gradually increases your exposure to a scaled-down version of what scares you. Doing this allows you to build up initial courage (or indifference). Then, you increment the fear slightly and repeat the process. For example, if you fear spiders, start with pictures to build “comfort.” Then watch videos to increase your tolerance further. Then, you see them live but confined. Once you get more comfortable, you can try stroking them- again in a controlled environment, with the final step of handling them. Over time, your constant exposure lowers your fear while building up a tolerance to the threat.
- Balance your effort by time/resource budgeting. You can always do better if you have more. So, striving for excellence has no endpoint. But there is a point of diminishing returns. If you work with a budget, this forces you to do the best you can with what you have. For example, consider when you take tests and have only an hour to complete them. Could you have done better? Maybe but your efforts are capped at an hour. By budgeting, you prevent yourself from going down a black hole of pursuing perfection.
- Have a contingency plan. Despite all of the above, sometimes bad things happen. By having a plan B, at least you’re not panicking when something goes wrong. You have put some thought into it, but you do this ahead of time when you’re calm. Again, limit your planning because the goal isn’t to anticipate every possible failure. You can consider either the most likely or the most devastating one.
Recall, the goal is not to eliminate the fears but to establish tolerance.
5. Practicing Self-Compassion
Even with the best backup plans, failure happens. The typical perfectionist response is to become harsh and highly self-critical. This reaction creates a vicious cycle. Rather than troubleshooting to determine what went wrong, the go-to responses are to set even higher standards or apply even more rigor to following your rituals. These actions assume that more is better and ignore any attempt to find the root cause of what went wrong.
Consider if someone made a mistake. Does calling them an idiot and telling them to work harder and be better get them to improve? Perhaps, but generally, they just repeat the things that didn’t work in the first place. Rarely do they sit down, reflect on what happened, and try to troubleshoot.
An effective strategy is to be more self-compassionate.
First, acknowledge that shortcomings do happen. They are part of gaining experience and being human. Failures do not mean you fail. Rather your hypothesis on how to do things didn’t work out. This viewpoint is critical. If your self-identity gets involved, it’s hard to improve since a part of you will feel it’s being attacked and will make it difficult to listen.
Techniques to facilitate self-compassion are the following:
- Stop ruminating. Ruminating is not problem-solving but an emotional hamster wheel where you revisit the negative event and just self-incriminate. Rarely does it lead to making you feel better or solve the underlying issue. It’s a tremendous waste of emotional energy.
- Treat yourself as if giving comfort to a child or a good friend. Many times, people are more compassionate to others than they are to themselves. It’s hard not to take it personally when you fail or get criticized. You get emotionally hijacked and go down the rumination path. Instead, imagine if what had happened was to a friend. And you are observing the situation. How would you respond? You want to help people get back on their feet and move on. Do the same but for yourself.
- Find and discuss with an empathetic witness. An empathetic witness is an individual who has gone through what you have experienced. As such, they have a greater appreciation and understanding of the emotions and thoughts you’re going through. Thus, they might be better able to relate and point out lessons learned. Note, this is not the same as sympathy. A sympathizer, however, well-intended may not be able to connect and hence offer solutions that don’t resonate or are helpful.
Self-compassion is a powerful counter to self-criticism. And is a critical component in building emotional resilience, which helps deal with anxiety, stress, and uncertainty.
Here is a recap of the 5 mental traps of perfectionists and the 5 strategies to get out of them. Recall that by changing the thoughts, you can short-circuit undesirable behaviors.
- Thinking in all or nothing terms; this binary view does not make you adaptable, which is critical for success
- Overemphasizing failures over successes; this creates a bias towards avoiding negatives rather than focusing on building wins
- Focusing on the gap, not the gain; this is highly de-motivating as your gap always starts larger than your gain, making any progress seem like an uphill battle
- Obsessing about control; you have control over your actions, not the outcomes that come from them
- Sacrificing for excellence; be aware that others around you also pay the price
- Challenging the basis for your beliefs; look for evidence to prove or disprove your assumptions
- Limiting your social comparisons; compare to improve not to compete
- Understanding what mistakes really mean; there are no intentional mistakes
- Building up a tolerance to uncertainty; you don’t know what you don’t know, so mistakes happen through no fault of your own
- Practicing self-compassion; when confronting failure, rather than self-blame, acknowledge the event, problem-solve to get lessons learned, and move on
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