By Roz Shafran, Dr. Sarah Egan, Tracey Wade.
Published: April 30, 2019, 2nd edition
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have
Why Should You Read This?
If you suspect your perfectionism is costing you more than it’s worth, then Overcoming Perfectionism is for you. Its techniques are action-oriented and proven to work. At least 5 psychology studies cite the book’s methods as being effective at not only lowering perfectionism, but also reducing the accompanying anxiety, stress, and depression.
What differentiates this book from others, however, is it doesn’t emphasize lowering your standards of excellence. A common argument is perfectionists set goals that are unreasonable or standards that are unreachable.
The authors pose a different question. What do you want from your life? And ask whether your perfectionism helps or hinders you from achieving your goal.
This distinction is critical. Many books treat perfectionism as all bad. If it were that simple, then addressing it would be straightforward. But these authors argue that perfectionism is by its nature difficult to overcome. They state:
One reason why many people find perfectionism difficult to change is that it has been helpful to them in the past (as the healthy pursuit of excellence), but has become more problematic over time or is an unhelpful approach in a different situation.
It is this plus side that makes overcoming perfectionism tough. The key is to run a cost-benefit analysis and find out what parts of perfectionism is getting you to where you want to go.
What’s It About?
Overcoming Perfectionism comes from a cognitive behavior theory (CBT) viewpoint. In CBT, thoughts drive feelings, which in turn lead to behaviors. Negative thoughts lead to negative emotions, which lead to counterproductive behaviors. The goal is to break or place a pause between thoughts and feelings so that the resulting behavior can be changed.
The book achieves this through a series of exercises and worksheets that ask you to start collecting data. This information ranges from self-monitoring your thoughts and feelings to doing experiments that challenge the “facts” underlying your standards and beliefs. The ultimate goal is to discover evidence that either supports or disagrees with your rationale.
What makes this book relatable is the authors show you sample responses and experiments that their patients have done. These provide concrete examples of what others have gone through and give you a sense that you’re not alone.
It is through these exercises that you learn why your perfectionism sticks around, what triggers it, and where it can be out of control.
But before going into the how-tos, the book makes some interesting insights about perfectionism.
Key Concept 1: Basing your self-worth on achievement has drawbacks
While you may hear that success begets success, what happens if it doesn’t? The authors noted that self-oriented perfectionists have a special relationship with success.
What makes these individuals unusual is how they behave when they achieve their standards, which are often high. In most cases, they just simply move to the next goal. They don’t celebrate. More often, they just dismiss their accomplishment. They feel either the goal wasn’t hard enough or state that anyone could have achieved it if they worked at it. Mind you, these are standards most people would say are high.
This lack of recognition is a problem when your self-worth relies on striving for achievement. If you pursue your goals relentlessly but play down any success, then you effectively place yourself in a ‘no-win’ situation. If you succeed, so what? If you fail, then you suck.
So, while you strive for excellence, at best, it provides you with temporary relief instead of excitement. For the tremendous amount of work you put in, to be sustainable, the rewards have to offset the costs.
Key Concept 2: Acknowledge you may be a perfectionist martyr
Discounting for the moment perfectionists who procrastinate, many have a reputation for enormous grit and perseverance. These are people who put in long hours and do far more than what is asked. As a result, they are often exhausted and burned out.
What’s interesting is that most would view this as unpleasant, but some perfectionists relish this state. To them, it’s concrete proof that they are pushing themselves to their physical limits. They are doing the best their bodies can handle. And it’s evidence that they are not slackers.
And for some, they can’t stop their perfectionism because they fear that to do so makes them a second-rate person. They believe they must work harder than most, expect more than others, and set higher standards to stay ahead. The “suffering” is the price they pay for their identity.
Key Concept 3: Differentiate between good and bad forms of perfectionism
Striving for excellence is a crucial driver for perfectionism. The challenge is distinguishing between unhelpful perfectionism and the healthy pursuit of excellence.
In the former, your self-worth depends on achieving high standards, no matter the costs. The viewpoint is all or nothing. You either meet the standard or fail.
When pursuing excellence, however, it’s not unusual to experience setbacks. No one gets anything perfect in their first attempt. So, it’s critical that you have a less fatalistic reaction to falling short. If mistakes are made, you acknowledge them, make an effort to learn what went wrong, and try to do better next time. But you don’t beat yourselves harshly over your failings and ruminate.
A good example is when young kids are learning a new skill. You know they are going to stumble. But being overly critical is likely to just have them ball out and cry. You try to encourage them and acknowledge any positive aspects of their performance. Perfectionists tend to forget this, especially the last part. In fact, they often compare their performances to top performers even when they are at the newbie stage. This creates an unreasonable expectation and stress.
To get around these issues, consider the following 5 takeaways.
Takeaway 1: Understanding why your perfectionism sticks around is more relevant than what caused it
From Overcoming Perfectionism:
Strange as it may seem, it is not necessary to understand the cause of a problem for it to be addressed successfully. For example, a surgeon can mend a broken leg without knowing whether the person broke it falling from a ladder, falling down the stairs or dancing. It is the same with mental health problems. The treatments that have had the most success are those that tackle what is keeping the problem going in the here and now, rather than those that look backward in search of causes.
A common solution is lower your standards as they are too high. The authors give a dissenting view:
This book is NOT about lowering standards but is about addressing the overdependence of your self-worth on striving and achievement. It is about giving you a choice of how to live your life, and considering what is best for you and those around you.
They recognize that you have motivations driving your perfectionism. And until you understand and address what those forces are, your current form of perfectionism is likely to persist. Many of the book’s exercises and tools get you to sanity-check your underlying beliefs and thoughts.
Takeaway 2: Fact-check your beliefs
A key observation in Overcoming Perfectionism is that many perfectionists operate on automatic. You have a set of beliefs that you do not question. You behave to fulfill these criteria.
But what if this foundation is wrong? For example, if you were to take a group of world-class performers, say athletes, would you expect them to be practicing 10+ hours a day? It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think these experts spend a lot of time on the craft. But the evidence is no. Studies on high performers find on average they spend 4-5 hours a day throughout most of their career. Their training is harder, and many started early in life, but they don’t spend all their time “working.” They spend a substantial amount recuperating. In fact, for athletes, if you keep pushing yourself too hard, you risk physical injury and can cut your career short if not careful.
Other beliefs the book questions:
- The more effort you put into something the more you get out. Law of diminishing returns says only up to a point.
- People tend to notice every detail and are quick to form critical judgment. Research on “change blindness” suggests most folks aren’t attuned to even massive changes in people.
- If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. A good principle but doesn’t apply to everything. In some situations, the difference between bad and good is minimal.
To facilitate fact-checking, the book suggests:
- Conduct surveys – ask others of what they do and think, to see if your beliefs are common or unique to you
- Carry out research – find out if the standards you set are typical for someone at your stage of readiness
- Perform experiments – test your beliefs but also do something different to see if the outcome matches your prediction. Does spending more time produce better results?
Takeaway 3: Reality-check your benefits
Let’s say that you do the above and find that your standards are reasonable. When you have limitless resources, it’s ok to ask for the ideal. Unfortunately, you don’t live in an unlimited world. Reality imposes a budget, whether you like it or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s time, money, or energy. You have finite “funds” to achieve what you want.
This takeaway is asking what happens when you factor in a “budget.” It’s asking if the outcomes you’re getting merit the investment you’re making.
To carry out this analysis, the book recommends using the same techniques used in fact-checking your beliefs (surveying, researching, experimenting). But here, you have a different goal. You are evaluating the benefits of your labors.
Points to consider:
- Does everything need to be at gold standards? Not all that you do is mission-critical. But if you treat everything as important, then nothing is. Your time and effort have value. Spend it on things that matter versus the mundane.
- Is the additional “quality”/effort distinguishable? Sometimes people can’t tell the difference between quality generated by 120% and 80% effort.
- Is there more value in quantity vs. quality? If the metric for success is getting out 100 widgets and you’re still working on 21, then that’s a problem.
- Is timeliness a factor? It doesn’t help if your deliverable is 120% better than the competition if you deliver it 2 weeks after your client requested it.
- Is the drive for excellence lowering your productivity? You may find that fatigue and exhaustion are reducing how much you’re able to get done in a day.
The goal of the surveys, research, and experiments is to gather evidence. For example, for a task that your perfectionism is making you struggle with, see what happens if you spend only 20% less time than you usually would. Did anyone notice any difference? Did the quality go up or down? The book cites several examples where less time led to more positive outcomes. In some cases, the sense of relief at getting more tasks completed offset the guilt of putting in less time in each effort. In other cases, the quality improved since people were less fatigued and could focus better.
Takeaway 4: Transform rules into guidelines
Perfectionists are known for setting very rigid and demanding rules by which they measure their performance. Often they take the form of all or nothing acceptance. You either hit your goal or you fail. Partial credit doesn’t count.
Unfortunately, this provides no flexibility in judging how well you are doing at your standards. If your target is 80% and you’re hitting 75%, then 77% and then 79%, a rigid interpretation is you didn’t get 80%. You failed 3 times. There is no distinction between 0 and a near 80. Progress doesn’t matter. All this does is create frustration and motives for self-criticism.
The book suggests replacing rules with guidelines. Rules are brittle and can break, while guidelines bend. The flexibility you get with the latter allows you to be more self-compassionate when you fall short. After all, the goal isn’t to follow the rule for the sake of following it. The rule’s intent is by doing it, you would hit your standards by making progress. Guidelines capture the same spirit, if not the letter of the law. They simply acknowledge things don’t always work as planned, but that doesn’t you’re not advancing.
Once you transform rules into guidelines, conduct behavioral experiments to observe what happens. One suggestion is to do less than what the rules call for and see if the outcome is drastically affected. See if you notice any differences. If the answer is no, then you know the original rule could be bent. If the outcome is weak, then you need to look at other aspects of the rule or move to evaluate something else.
Takeaway 5: Watch out for negative thinking styles
Self-oriented perfectionists, the main focus of this book, often engage in thinking styles that are self-critical. Examples include:
- Having double standards: they are incredibly harsh on themselves but not onto others
- Catastrophizing: they often conjure up the worst possible outcome that could happen
- Personalizing failure: they take full responsibility for a failed outcome even if others are involved and may have contributed
- Mind-reading: they think they know what others are thinking and often assume the worst
And it isn’t just the frequency of having these thoughts that are damaging to self-worth. Often, these thinking styles tend to be quite intense in their negativity. The net result is a more substantial negativity bias, which makes it challenging to achieve progress.
To address this, the authors suggest keeping thought diaries which note when these thoughts occur and record the feelings and events that trigger them. Once you have a record, then you can start analyzing them and questioning if they are fact-based. Did the worse thing happen? Was it completely your fault, or did others also play a role? Did you confirm if what others thought of you matched what you were thinking?
By noting these negative thoughts, you can minimize their damaging influence on your self-worth. Striving for excellence is challenging as it is, you don’t need to burden the effort any further.
Cons: Gaps & Issues
If there is a shortcoming to this book, it is its singular focus on self-oriented perfectionists. These individuals direct their perfectionism inward. They notice every flaw and mistake they make, ruminate on them, and constantly beat themselves over them.
There are two other perfectionist types. On the opposite side of the spectrum, other-oriented perfectionists direct their focus outward. They are highly critical of others and frequently feel disappointed and angry when folks don’t measure up to their standards.
The last is a socially prescribed perfectionist who believes they have to live up to the high expectations of those around them.
Most perfectionism books state it is not unusual for a person to have aspects of all 3. In particular, one may start as a socially prescribed perfectionist who has a parent or boss with demanding standards. Over time, they internalize these external standards as their own, becoming a self-oriented perfectionist.
Unfortunately, the authors do not address these other perfectionist types. So, while the book techniques may be applicable, it’s not clear how you would adapt them. For example, if you want to be less critical of others, you might try being less rigid by softening your rules into guidelines. But this is all up to the reader to consider. Likewise, if stress is due to living up to someone’s standards, short of asking yourself if it is worth it, the authors don’t provide much concrete advice.
Overcoming Perfectionism offers an evidence-based approach to dealing with self-oriented perfectionism. Unlike other books, it doesn’t assume your standards are unreasonably high. Instead, the authors ask you to question your beliefs and thoughts around what you are doing. They want you to think if the benefits outweigh the costs.
Here is a summary of the main points:
- Basing your self-worth on striving for achievement is problematic if you consistently undervalue your wins and focus on the negatives
- Be aware of the possibility that you may be a perfectionist martyr and see “suffering” as evidence of pushing yourself to the limit
- Not all perfectionism is bad. Some elements may have gotten distorted over time
- Explore why you think your perfectionism is sticking around
- Fact-check your beliefs to see if there is any evidence to back them up
- See if the benefits outweigh the costs
- Transform rigid rules into flexible guidelines and see if that reduces the stress while maintaining progress
- Watch out for negative thinking styles as they lead to negative behavior
Overall, this book provides a robust set of tools for addressing self-oriented perfectionism, and on this basis, is recommended as a Get It. Unfortunately, where it falls short is that it only addresses 1 of the 3 perfectionist types. So if you are suffering from other-oriented or socially-proscribed perfectionism, then at best, this is a Maybe. You might be better looking at other texts.
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