The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance
By Sharon Martin, MSW, LCSW
Published January 2, 2019
Recommendation: Avoid | Ok | Get It | Must Have
Why Should You Read This?
Are you the type of person who holds yourself and others to extremely high standards? Do you have a nagging inner critic that says you’re inadequate no matter how much you have achieved? If the answers are yes, then chances are you’re a perfectionist.
There’s nothing wrong with having high standards or working hard. But, if you think you’re paying too high a cost for your success, or you feel you’re not getting as much out as others with less effort, then this book is for you.
Written by a therapist with over 20 years of experience treating perfectionists and being a recovering one herself, Sharon Martin knows the struggles you face. She understands your frustrations, daily stress, and unyielding discomforts. Using cognitive behavior therapy principles, Martin helps you identify problematic thoughts, driving the painful behaviors that cause distress. She asks you a series of questions to better understand where you are mentally and emotionally. But most importantly, she then suggests ways to change these bad habits to something better. The result is a very actionable how-to guide transforming your perfectionist negatives into positives.
4 Ways Perfectionism Impacts You
In job interviews, perfectionism is often the go-to response for a “weakness.” But Martin shows that for true perfectionists, there is nothing trivial about perfectionism. It is a major source of distress and anguish. She cites 4 significant costs:
1. More stress
Setting high expectations is stressful. For perfectionists, excellence is about being error-free. You are anxious since any minor mistake tarnishes the outcome. You can’t relax since you’re paranoid something could go wrong.
Unfortunately, this is a catch-22. If nothing happens, any relief is minor. And heaven forbid, if something terrible happens, you go volcanic and into self-incrimination mode. Because despite your best efforts, you missed something. The feedback loop is to be even more rigorous and work harder, so it doesn’t happen again. The result is even more stress.
2. Poor work-life balance
Compared to your peers, you slave on despite any fatigue or overwhelm you feel. As a result, your personal life, hobbies, and any sense of fun or self-care fall by the wayside. Any activity to replenish your energy is a distraction. And when you engage in something fun, you turn it into a competition since you need to excel and prove your worth. In short, you are all about the work since you can’t relax or recharge.
3. Missed opportunities
Perfectionists are driven by many kinds of fears: failure, embarrassment, criticism, rejection, and not being as good as anyone else. As a result, you don’t try new things or push your boundaries. You stick to the things you know you’re good at, even if it’s unsatisfying. As a result, you miss opportunities for growth, creativity, greater success, and satisfaction.
4. Neglected relationships
Perfectionists do not prioritize relationships in work or personal. For work, you do everything yourself. You don’t want to rely on others, since you risk being let down and getting frustrated. Or you feel that it’s ok for you to be the go-to person, but you refuse to go to others for help as it shows you have deficiencies.
For intimate relationships, you don’t want to show your vulnerability. So, you project an image of what you want people to see. While this may protect you from hurt, you question if you are truly loved or understood since people don’t really know the true you.
What Are the Causes of Perfectionism?
Martin describes 3 sources behind perfectionism:
1. Your parents
No surprise here. You know your parents had to play some role. But what was interesting was the number of parenting styles leading to perfectionistic tendencies. Starting with the expected to the less obvious:
- Perfectionist. Parents who encourage high achievement, goals, and standards. They are rigid, demand a lot of themselves, and act as models for self-criticism.
- Demanding. Parents who focus on external measures of success. They do not consider their children’s interests, dreams, or interests. All that matters is whether the kids live up to their expectations of success.
- Distracted. Parents so busy that they focus on their kid’s physical needs but miss emotional ones. They are often physically absent or emotionally distant- they don’t like talking about feelings. They may also feel that if the kids are achieving or not in trouble, they must be happy. As a result, the kids feel the only way to get their parents’ attention is either through success or trouble.
- Overwhelmed. Parents who can’t cope with their life challenges never mind their kids. As a result, these children use perfectionism to control an unpredictable environment.
Children lack emotional maturity. To get a sense of security in the world, they seek their parents’ approval and attention. In the first three cases, they achieve this by meeting their parents’ expectations and demands. In the last one, some kids learn they can’t rely on their parents, so they have to “grow up” quickly.
2. Your environment and culture
Martin stresses that the media has been flooding society with messages like: 1) “we have to be perfect and live up [to] the images on our televisions and computers and 2) we have to do it all on our own, because life’s a competition, and only some of us can make it to the top.”
With technology, you feel increasing pressure to achieve more and to look perfect while doing it all. You can now work 24/7, and if you don’t, others will. And the message is:
You should be able to do everything and you should make it look effortless. You should have a successful career, raise your kids with organic meals and enriching activities (never sticking them in front of the iPad), have a spotless house, take picture-perfect vacations to the beach, and love going to the gym.
All of this creates very high expectations and a lot of stress.
Then, there are cultural influences. For example, Martin cites Amy Chua’s Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother where traditional Chinese mothers have no room for imperfection. They expect their children to be the best. The cultural expectation is biased towards working nonstop, focusing on outward signs of success with productivity and achievement above all else.
As environmental and cultural signals tend to be always all around us, they come across as background and seem “normal.” So, they aren’t easy to pick up. But their influence is strong. To perfectionists, these are all expectations they “need” to live up to.
3. Your genes
Some 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive by nature. As such, these folks are predisposed to the following traits: avoiding and spotting errors, extremely conscientious, adept at tasks requiring speed, and attention to detail. They also don’t like surprises, so envision how things should be done and aim for that.
As a result, perfectionists have a higher need for certainty and control. Their fear of mistakes and the unknown are more significant compared to the rest of the population.
How to Transform These Perfectionist Habits: Case Study with Procrastination
In the book, Martin provides a hopeful message to perfectionists. She shows there are constructive counterparts to each of the negative aspects of perfectionism. Through her exercises, she guides the reader in transforming these negatives into positives. Her book covers the following transformations:
- Fear -> Courage
- Self-Criticism -> Self-Compassion
- Procrastinating -> Getting Things Done
- Busy -> Mindfully Present
- People-Pleasing -> Being Assertive
- Anger -> Peace
- Criticizing -> Accepting Others
- Guilt -> Self-Care
- Shame -> Connection
What makes the book useful is that for each pair, she lists different approaches to explore. So, if one doesn’t work, there is always another tactic to try.
To illustrate, let’s examine converting procrastinating to getting things done. For context, procrastination covers not just the inability to start but to finish things.
She first describes 3 perfectionist culprits that drive procrastination: overwhelm, fear, and all-or-nothing thinking.
Overwhelm works by expanding the complexity or scope of things. Some perfectionists get stuck in analysis paralysis. They struggle with decision making as they try to anticipate everything that could go wrong. Others are slow to take action because every task must be done perfectly. As a result, they spend a lot of time researching or preparing and not doing. In either case, perfectionists make everything seem mountain-size. This makes it hard for them to start.
Fear’s role on the surface seems protective. It’s there to help you avoid failure, rejection, and criticism. But for perfectionists, the intensity of their fears impacts them in two ways. One is they don’t move. They need everything to be right before starting. Because the logic is if you have a bad start, how can you expect anything good to come out of it? The problem is conditions may never be perfect. So, you never start. If you never start, you can’t succeed either.
The second effect relates to if they do start, they never finish. Because perfectionists set high standards, their fear of rejection or criticism means they are continually “perfecting” their work. They may produce a great product, but since it’s not good enough, they refuse to release it. The rest of the world sees a constant work in progress sign, unaware of how much work was done.
In either case, the fear outweighs the benefits of any success.
Often, lurking behind the fear and overwhelm is all-or-nothing thinking. To a perfectionist, there is no compromise on their standards. Everything must be “right.” There is no margin for error. If you don’t follow the plan, you risk failure, which is to be avoided at all costs.
With the above causes identified, Martin provides 4 approaches to transform procrastination into getting things done:
1. Reframe negative perceptions
Chances are you are sending yourself negative messages about the task. People don’t function well when they are disparaging themselves. The solution is to acknowledge the positives of the task. This comes in the form of either realistic or encouraging self-talk. Have you been successful at the job before? Have you seen others like you succeed at doing this? In short, move from the negative to the positive to get you moving.
2. Look for partial success
It’s hard to start when you feel you must do it perfectly. For example, say you set a goal of working for 25 minutes, and you only have 15 minutes free. Do you work for 15 minutes or not at all since it isn’t enough? The point is to make progress. Twenty-five minutes is nice, but 15 minutes is better than zero. With “all or nothing” thinking partial credit has no value. The focus should be on progress over perfection.
3. Increase motivation with the following tactics:
- 5-minute rule. Getting started is often the hardest. Commit to doing something for 5 minutes, and if you don’t want to continue after the time’s up, then quit.
- Do the hardest task at the beginning of the day when your energy is the highest and you aren’t bombarded with other commitments
- Minimize distractions
- Break complex tasks into manageable pieces as the overwhelm is often due to seeing something insurmountable
- Accept imperfection – purposely leave one task imperfect or good enough. This can be done by timeboxing the activity.
4. Practice self-compassion, not self-criticism
It’s hard to make progress when you’re yelling at yourself for being incompetent. Instead, ask yourself if the criticism is realistic. Does it make sense to do a task error-free if you’re just learning it? Should the practice be perfect every time? (If it is, then why are you practicing it?)
In short, each of these techniques centers around identifying a negative thought, questioning or refuting it, and then changing it to a more constructive viewpoint to get moving. This general approach of identification, question, and then transformation is core to cognitive behavior therapy and is used by Martin throughout the book to address the other perfectionist habits.
Cons: Gaps & Issues
Nit-picky, but for a book that says evidence-based, it didn’t cite much in statistics or references. Aside from the chapter on the roots of perfectionism, the evidence was sparse. However, as Martin has 20 years of experience as a therapist, I’m sure her approaches are well-tested. It would have been nice to see more scientific rigor (hey, I’m a perfectionist). But this is a minor quibble. The book provides a fantastic how-to guide on transforming your perfectionism for the better.
Recapping for this post,
- The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism uses Sharon Martin’s 20 years of experience both as a therapist treating perfectionists and a recovering perfectionist herself to show how cognitive behavior therapy techniques can transform the negative aspects of perfectionism into constructive habits.
- 4 ways perfectionism adversely affects you
- Causes more stress
- Creates poor work-life balance
- Makes you miss opportunities
- Negatively impacts your work and personal relationships
- 3 causes of perfectionism
- Your parents
- Your environment and culture
- Your genes
- Transforming perfectionist habits using a case study on moving from procrastination to getting things done
- Reframe negative perceptions towards tasks
- Acknowledge partial success focusing on progress
- Ways to increase motivation to get started
- Practice self-compassion instead of self-criticism
If you suspect your perfectionist tendencies are doing more harm than good, then this book is a Must-Have. You will learn the negative ways perfectionism impacts you. But more importantly, Martin shows you how to transform these traits into something less stressful and more constructive. Her exercises and how-to approach are readable and easy to follow.
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