When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism
By Martin M. Antony, Ph.D., and Richard P. Swinson, M.D.
Published 2009, 2nd edition
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have
Why Should You Read This?
If you’re looking for science-backed ways to reduce perfectionism, consider this book. The authors cite 3 psychology studies where using these methods, the participants were able to lower their perfectionism scores.
In one study, researchers observed statistically significant drops in 2 aspects of perfectionism, concern over mistakes and doubts about actions. In the former, it’s about becoming anxious about making small mistakes. In the latter, it’s about lacking confidence in the outcomes of your actions. Using the methods, the participants expressed less anxiety over these 2 points.
What’s It About?
Key Concept 1: Using CBT Techniques to Address Perfectionism
“On its own, just reading this book is unlikely to lead to a dramatic reduction in your perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors. To see real changes, it will be important to actually use the strategies.”
Key Concept 2: It’s about Cost Benefit Analysis
People who are perfectionistic tend to have standards and expectations that are very difficult or impossible to meet.
Although having high standards is often helpful, perfectionism is associated with having standards that are so high that they interfere with performance.
Perfectionism is often associated with other problems, such as anxiety and depression
- Excessiveness: can most individuals meet your goal?
- Accuracy: is it true that unless the standard is met, failure is the outcome?
- Flexibility: can you adjust your standards when necessary? Or does the standard provide no room for change?
- Costs and benefits: does striving for your standard provide more benefit than the associated costs?
“Perfectionism is a problem when it leads to unhappiness or interferes with functioning. Having excessively high standards can affect almost any area of life, including health, diet, work, relationships, and interests.”
Takeaway 1: Assess Where Perfectionism is Impacting Your Life
- Helpful vs. unhelpful standards impacting you or others or both
- Look at the impact of your standards
- Are they higher than most people?
- Are you able to meet these standards?
- Are other people able to meet your standards?
- Do your standards help you meet your goals or get in the way?
- What would be the costs of relaxing these standards or ignoring the rule?
- What would be the benefits of relaxing these standards or ignoring the rule?
- Assess the degree of impairment
- Does it affect performance at school, work, hobbies, etc?
- Assess the impact on others
- Do they feel anxious or frustrated when interacting with you?
- How does perfectionism affect your relationships?
- Assess the emotions generated by perfectionism*
- Sad or depressed
- Angry, irritable, frustrated
- Flexible vs. rigid perfectionistic beliefs
- Difficult to relax standards?
- Difficult to recognize being overly perfectionist?
- Becoming upset when unable to meet own standards*
Takeaway 2: Cognitive Distortions are often at the Root of Problematic Perfectionism
- All or nothing thinking: viewing things as either right or wrong, without recognizing the complexity of the situation or many points on the continuum; all or nothing is often linked to excessively high standards; anything that falls short of meeting the standard is viewed as a total failure.
- Filtering: selectively focusing on and magnifying negative details at the cost of positive information, which is viewed as less important. For example, it doesn’t matter if you have 1000 likes, it’s the one dislike that bugs you.
- Mind reading: thinking you know what others are thinking and that their thoughts of you are negative
- Probability overestimations: predicting negative events are more likely to occur than in reality
- Tunnel vision: focusing excessively on detail and missing the big picture; this gets in the way of task completion as you focus on the specifics of one step and don’t complete the entire process
- Interpersonal sensitivity: being overly concerned about the actions of others and often having extreme need for approval by others
- Catastrophic thinking: believing you can’t cope with the negative outcome if it were to occur
- Extremely rigid standards and inflexibility: not willing to alter or bend the rules for any reason
- Over-responsibility and excessive need for control: believing that you have more control over life events than you do; feelings of over-responsibility lead people to spend too much time on tasks to protect themselves from making a mistake or from being harmed
- Using “should” statements: often describing actions as mandatory
- Difficulty trusting others: being unable to delegate tasks to others or feeling the need to watch people closely
- Inappropriate social comparisons: making social comparisons more frequently than others and often feeling negative emotions, especially when they compare themselves to individuals more experienced than themselves
Takeaway 3: Challenging Your Basis for Perfectionism
- Examination: consider the actual results to confirm or contradict your belief
- Education: seek accurate information on a topic to provide ground truth on the belief itself
- Taking another perspective: do others, or more importantly people you respect, view the situation the same way you do?
- Compromising with yourself and others; what happens if the standards are lowered?
- Hypothesis testing: evaluating the accuracy of your predictions, beliefs, and thoughts; test the validity of the perfectionistic prediction; make a mistake or be imperfect – does the world end?
- Changing your social-comparison habits: perfectionists tend to compare themselves to people who are more experienced or skilled than they are
- Using coping statements; when you don’t have time to use the above strategies replace your negative thoughts with less critical ones. Best example is using self-compassion over self-criticism. Acknowledge the effort you made even if it is less than what you had hoped for. Partial credit is better than complete rejection.
- Tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity: how much certainty do you need? Is knowing a nice-to-have or a must-have?
Takeaway 4: Changing Perfectionistic Behaviors
- Exposure-based approaches: involves repeatedly confronting the feared object or situation until the fear decreases; best used for situations triggering intense negative reactions such as fear or anger; also useful for dealing with avoidance mechanisms
- Response prevention: stopping yourself from engaging in problematic, perfectionistic behaviors; generally different from exposure where you do something anxiety provoking; in response prevention you disengage from behaviors that protect you from feeling uncomfortable or to prevent bad things from happening (such as rechecking)
- Prioritizing: a 3-step process for getting things done. First is to generate a list of tasks to complete. Then rank these based on importance (and consequences if the task is not completed). Complete the task in order of urgency and importance.
- Overcoming procrastination: for a perfectionist, being fearful of not completing the task well or not knowing where to start because it’s overwhelming are common reasons. The solution is to break the task into smaller units and work on these smaller tasks.
Takeaway 5: Accepting Imperfection Since Complete Control is Impossible
“In some ways, perfectionism reflects an extreme need for control. Perfectionists often strive to control the emotions, thoughts, behaviors, performances, and appearances of themselves and others. However, it’s impossible to have control over all aspects of your life. Furthermore, your attempts to have complete control either haven’t worked or have come with an unreasonably high cost (for example, impaired relationships) which is why you’re reading this book.”
“Efforts to control experiences are a problem when they are extreme, intense, overly rigid, or ineffective. If you are constantly trying to control your own thoughts and feelings as well as the behaviors of others, and your attempts are not working, don’t take it as a sign to simply try harder. Rather, it may be a sign that it’s time to give up some of your efforts at having complete control over your experiences.”
Cons: Gaps & Issues
- Helping you identify where and how perfectionism is affecting you
- Recognizing the cognitive distortions that are often at the root of dysfunctional perfectionism
- Challenging your perfectionist beliefs and thoughts
- Changing perfectionist behaviors
- Acknowledging that imperfection is the first step to change
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