About This Course
Learn evidence-based scientific ways to overcoming perfectionism.
In six short weeks, you’ll learn different ways to stop perfectionism for good.
Course created and written by
Dr Joseph Kekulawala is a Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. His last public appointment was at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He is passionate about improving access to quality mental health care globally.
About this course
Learn evidence-based scientific ways to overcoming perfectionism.
In six short weeks, you’ll learn different ways to stop perfectionism for good. Learn the difference between a healthy striver versus a perfectionist, graded exposure and habit reversal. Each week we will teach you how to unwind old habits, change your mindset and gradually build your overcoming perfectionism toolkit.
By taking this self-help course, you’ll develop psychological skills to stop perfectionism. This course is designed for someone looking for help with their perfectionism. Week 1 is an introduction before we move into more advanced topics.
Why we created this course.
According to researchers hundreds of millions of people struggle with perfectionism. It is an under-recognised concern, that until recently wasn’t spoken about. Millions of people experience perfectionism but are unaware. Overcoming perfectionism could lead to massive improvements in productivity and quality of life.
This course has been written by our team of psychologists and psychiatrists. We have pulled from different schools of evidence-based psychological practices in order to build this course. We want you to see this course tools alongside conventional therapy and broader support. We believe that it is possible for people to stop their perfectionism, with the right mindset and psychological tools.
How this course is different
Each week of our course is divided into five parts:
- Educational lessons at the start,
- Quizzes to get you thinking about your mental health
- Aided self-reflection component to increase awareness
- Tailored suggestions
- Action plans which include worksheets
Depending on how you answer the questions in our quiz, you will get tailored suggestions each week. The feedback and suggestions you take away from this course will be unique to you.
For example, if Rahul and Bobby, two fictional people, were to do this course. The chances that Rahul and Bobby would get the same feedback would be about 1 in 100,000.
We use a computer matching algorithm to specific feedback and suggestions based on your quiz answers.
Why do we do this?
People are unique. We want to give you answers, feedback, and solutions that best suit you.
Key aspects of this course
We will cover model of perfectionism to help you to better understand what causes and continues perfectionism. We will go over automatic and hot thoughts before exploring your core beliefs. We will share some of our best behavioural strategies, time management tips and ways to overcome procrastination. These are some of the key aspects of our overcoming perfectionism course.
The course ends with early warning signs, learning about lapses versus relapses and finally re-evaluating your goals. There are worksheets each week to help solidify your progress.
Is this course will help you to stop your perfectionism. That it will be a tool alongside professional and other supports you get. We want to get you thinking, understanding and questioning and eventually overcoming perfectionism. We believe that if you stop perfectionism, your happiness and enjoyment of life will increase.
Good News! We have opened access to Week 1 of the learning material
Topics Covered in this section
Introduction to perfectionism
Welcome to the ePsychonline Overcoming Perfectionism Course, a six-week self-help program for people struggling with unrelenting standards and perfectionism.
Do you set extremely high standards for yourself and others? Do you judge your self-worth on your ability to meet these high standards? Do your high standards demand you to make difficult sacrifices that take away from other areas of your life? Does striving for your high standards take a toll on your health and wellbeing?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, these troubles could be stopping you from reaching your full potential and living the life you want. Don’t worry, you’ve come to the right place! Whether you suffer from mild perfectionism or severe and debilitating standards, there is support and effective treatment options available to you.
This course is a great place to start, and we applaud you on making it this far in your journey towards freedom. All you need to get started with this course are basic reading skills and access to the internet. A good dose of motivation and an open mind will also go a long way. For anyone under the age of 18 years, we suggest a trusted adult be present to guide you through the content. Some of this content might trigger distress, so it is helpful to have some support.
What to expect from this course?
This course will guide you through an evidence-based information and skills package to help you overcome your perfectionism. The aims of this course are to help you:
- Better understand perfectionism and how it impacts you
- Learn about when perfectionism becomes a problem
- Set some realistic goals to help you track your progress
- Learn about and change perfectionistic thinking
- Learn about and change behaviours that keep perfectionism going
- Learn how to stop procrastinating and manage your time better
- Redefine your relationship with failure
- Learn how to foster self-compassion and forgiveness
- Make a plan to maintain your gains and recover from setbacks
The course runs for 6-weeks in total, with each week broken down into three sections:
- Section 1 provides educational content to help boost your knowledge of perfectionism and get you thinking about how the information applies to you. It also includes activities, or ‘action plans’, to help you put the principles you’ve learned into practice
- Section 2 guides you through an aided self-reflection in the form of multiple-choice questions and tailored feedback. This builds on Section 1 by helping you develop deeper insight into the nature of your difficulties
Section 3 uses your responses from Section 2 to provide you with additional self-help recommendations and resources that are targeted to your unique needs.
How to get the most from this course
Having a vision for life changing improvement is great, but it is also important to have realistic expectations for this course. Learning the skills in this course will take time and practice. The more effort you put in, the more you will get out of the course. You are likely to start noticing benefits as you make changes in your own life, however, your difficulties are unlikely to be ‘cured’ completely within a short timeframe. To get long lasting benefits, you will need to continue the hard work well into the future.
When addressing emotional issues, it is not uncommon for things to get worse before they get better. Growing as a human means stepping outside your comfort zone. With that said, feeling terrible can actually be a sign of progress! We encourage you to redefine your view of success. Down the track, success might look like being able to take on tasks without being paralysed by perfectionism. But right now, success might look like simply engaging with the course content each week and making a series of small changes in the way you think and act. You may not immediately feel better, but we encourage you not to make this your aim.
On the flip side, failure does not exist in this course. Every so-called ‘failure’ provides you with useful information about yourself. Remember, knowing what doesn’t work is just as valuable as knowing what does work. So, we encourage you to reframe failures as ‘opportunities for learning’. When things don’t work out as planned, reflect on what got in the way and make the necessary changes to your approach next time. The most important thing is that you keep trying. This is particularly important for all of you who struggle with perfectionism.
Given this course is all about overcoming perfectionism, it deserves a special note. You will not get the most out of this course if you try to do it ‘perfectly’. In fact, this approach will hinder your progress. We encourage you to get started without making sure things are ‘just right’. We actually encourage you to make mistakes. If this sounds absurd to you, stick with us. The reason for this advice will become clearer as we move through the course content. For now, it’s enough to keep an open mind and come along for the ride!
What is perfectionism?
Before we jump into the skills content for this course, we must first define ‘perfectionism’. This term is commonly used, but there are some widespread misconceptions about what it means. Before we move on, think about what the term perfectionism means to you. When you think of this word, what thoughts and feelings arise?
Perfectionism is sometimes mistaken for ‘being perfect’ or ‘doing something perfectly’. People who view perfectionism in this way are likely to see it as a good thing. They might take pride in being a ‘perfectionist’, or compliment others who have perfectionistic traits. However, the more accurate definition of perfectionism has nothing to do with actually being perfect or doing things perfectly. Instead, it is about the beliefs that we hold around achievement and self-worth. From this stance, when poorly managed, perfectionism can be more of a curse than a blessing.
- Relentlessly striving for extremely high standards, which are either unachievable or achievable only at a great personal cost.
- Judging your self-worth based largely on your achievements and whether you meet the extremely high standards you set, and
- Continuing to pursue unrealistically high standards, despite negative consequences that are experienced as a result.
So, perfectionism involves the standards we set and the importance we place on meeting these standards. It is about avoiding failure, disapproval and rejection and involves the belief that self-worth means achieving at any cost. As mentioned above, it has very little to do with actual achievement or the quality of a person’s performance. If a person’s achievement is high, their sense of self-worth may be positive. However, it is likely to be fragile as it relies on them continuing to achieve.
Perfectionism is different from simply having high standards and working hard to achieve your goals in life. Of course, there are parts of perfectionism that can be helpful. For example, striving for excellence can help you reach your potential. However, perfectionism can quickly become problematic. Unrealistic standards inevitably set us up for failure. Therefore, more often than not, perfectionism leaves us feeling disappointed and unworthy. Similarly, perfectionism continues despite the many negative consequences it brings.
Perfectionism can impact all areas of a person’s life. Some people are impacted more in certain areas. Common areas that are affected by perfectionism include:
- Work and education (e.g., getting a particular mark, performing at a certain level, getting a promotion, avoiding mistakes)
- Appearance/presentation (e.g., having to look or dress a certain way, be a certain size, present in a certain manner)
- Verbal or written communication (e.g., having to say or write things perfectly, needing to have the ‘perfect’ words)
- Health/hygiene (e.g., having to be immaculately groomed, eat a rigid diet, follow a certain exercise routine)
- Relationships (e.g., having the perfect partner, having ideal friends/friendships, needing to be seen by others in a certain way)
- Time and punctuality (e.g., needing to be on time or early, or having to be there before others)
- Environment and order (e.g., needing the house to be tidy, needing the garden to be immaculate, needing things to be done ‘just right’ or in a certain order)
- Hobbies and leisure (e.g., needing to be the best at this, focus shifts from pleasure to performance)
- Sport, music, and the arts (e.g., needing to beat your personal best or win against others, performing with no mistakes)
As you can see, perfectionism can be all consuming. Given that you’re doing this course to overcome perfectionism, you probably already know that perfectionism comes at a cost. We will explore this idea further in the sections to come. The main point to take from here is that perfectionism can become a serious issue if not managed well. It is different in many ways from other, more healthy, forms of striving for excellence and self-improvement.
As mentioned, there are many common misconceptions about perfectionism. In this section, we clear up some of these misunderstandings by discussing some common myths about perfectionism.
Myth 1: Perfectionism means being perfect. Perfectionists are always high achievers
- Perfectionism is not about actually being perfect. Instead, it is about seeking perfection. People high in perfectionism may actually perform below average, as their fear of failure prevents them from taking risks and performing at their best. Perfectionists often have problems with procrastination, missed deadlines and low productivity.
Myth 2: Perfectionism is helpful and is the reason for my success
- Perfectionism does not lead to success and happiness. Instead, there is evidence that perfectists are less successful than non-perfectionists who have similar levels of talent, skill, or intelligence. Highly successful perfectionists have achieved their success despite their perfectionism, not because of it.
Myth 3: Perfectionism is the same as conscientiousness
- Conscientiousness is a personality trait associated with being careful, goal-directed and hardworking. Whilst it may look similar to perfectionism, the two are quite different. Compared to perfectionists, conscientious people tend to have more realistic goals, can adapt better to setbacks, and are less negatively impacted by their mistakes.
Myth 4: Perfectionism is all about academic work
- Perfectionism often extends beyond academic work. As we discussed earlier, perfectionism can impact areas such as appearance, relationships, hobbies, and so on. In severe cases, perfectionism impacts several aspects of a person’s life.
Myth 5: Perfectionism is all about wanting to be the best
- Whilst perfectionism is often about seeking success, it can also be about avoiding failure. This is often driven by a deep fear of not being good enough, being rejected or not belonging.
Myth 6: Perfectionism is something you’re born with. It can’t be changed
- It is true that people are born with different levels of consciousness. However, as discussed in Myth 3, perfectionism is different to consciousness. Perfectionism can be changed. People can challenge perfectionistic beliefs and learn different ways of coping.
After reading these myths, were there any that you also believed to be true? Perhaps you still believe them to be true. Either way, we encourage you to read on to learn more about the various aspects of perfectionism. In the next sections, we talk about what perfectionism looks and feels like.
What does perfectionism look like?
When we talk about what perfectionism looks like, we are referring to your observable behaviour. You can’t always spot a perfectionist just by looking at their actions. Perfectionism can present in different ways. For example, some highly perfectionistic people will appear to be confident, coping well and highly successful. Others may appear to be careless, coping poorly and disengaged.
Despite the differences between people, there are some common signs to look out for:
You are highly critical of yourself and others. When you or someone else fails to meet the desired standards, you are quick to point out where you or they went wrong and what should have been done differently. You might also correct other people or comment on their performance.
High sensitivity to mistakes
You are highly sensitive to making mistakes and receiving criticism. You take these things as a sign that you have ‘failed’, rather than an indication that you can learn and improve. You overreact to mistakes and unwanted feedback and may become highly defensive.
High attention to detail and accuracy
You agonise over small details and constantly try to improve things by re-doing them. You spend excessive time on a task or minor detail until it is ‘just right’. You are highly cautious and thorough, but it takes you a lot longer than most to complete a task. For example, you may write and re-write an email five times until you consider it to be perfect. This level of detail and accuracy is often not worth the time and effort.
Constant checking and reassurance seeking
You spend excessive time checking over things. For example, you take extreme caution and repeatedly check your work for errors. You require constant reassurance that you’re doing things ‘right’ before moving on to the next task. For example, you require positive feedback and ask others to check your work. This often means you are slow to complete tasks. The time and energy spent on tasks is out of proportion to what is required.
Excessive planning or organising
You spend too much time planning or organising for a task, and run out of time to actually complete the task. This may involve list-making, arranging your desk or office environment, and other ways of planning for action. Planning and organising can be a way to make sure things are ‘just right’ to begin with, or they can be a form of procrastination and avoidance.
You put off starting and completing tasks because you fear that you won’t be able to do them to your standards. You make excuses for why you can’t get started, such as “I’m too busy” and “I don’t feel well enough”. As a result, you unnecessarily delay taking action, despite knowing that this brings negative consequences. For example, you delay applying for a job until the time feels ‘right’ and there is no other stress in your life. This is simply unrealistic, and the cost is that you never get a job.
Overworking and overcompensating
You spend a lot of time working to reach your high standards. You sacrifice other important things like sleep, leisure and social activities. It takes you a lot longer to get things done, because you are trying to make them perfect. Often, the quality of your work does not match the amount of time you spend on it. Similarly, you overcompensate in an attempt to reach perfection. For example, you arrive 30 minutes early to every appointment, simply to avoid being late.
Need for control
You have a need to feel in control. For example, you may believe there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way of doing a job and want to oversee how others perform when working as a team. Similarly, you may have strict rules for yourself around things like diet and exercise. When broken, these rules may make you feel out of control. As a result of needing control, you may be less likely to delegate tasks or ask for help. For example, you do all the cleaning at home because you’re afraid your spouse won’t do it properly.
Appears to be coping well
On the surface, you appear to be coping extremely well. Even in high-pressure situations, where stress is expected, you appear to have everything under control. This is often a facade, which occurs because you feel that you need to appear competent and in control at all times. Under the surface, however, you may be struggling.
Difficulty making decisions and meeting deadlines
You strive to reach perfection and get things ‘right’. As a result, you hold off on making decisions until you know for sure what the right choice is. This can be as simple as choosing what to wear each day. You also struggle to meet deadlines, either due to procrastination or the excessive amount of time it takes to reach your high standards.
You may avoid attending certain events or starting certain tasks, out of fear that your performance won’t be good enough. Avoidance is a common sign of perfectionism. It is based on the idea that you can’t fail if you don’t have a go. For example, you don’t start an assignment out of fear that you’ll get a bad grade. Giving up too soon because things aren’t going well is another form of avoidance.
Signs of stress and overwhelm
You feel constantly stressed, tense, tired and irritable. Physical complaints can be part of this, including headaches, stomach upset, and pain. You may also feel overwhelmed by the intense demands you place on yourself. Given that you either avoid tasks or complete them slowly, demands tend to build up and can take a toll on your health.
What does perfectionism feel like?
When we talk about what perfectionism feels like, we are referring to your inner experience. Your inner experience is made up of your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Before moving on, we encourage you to have a thing about what struggling with perfectionism feels like for you. What are the emotions and physical sensations that arise in your body? What are the perfectionistic ideas and judgements that your mind comes up with on a daily basis?
Whilst everyone’s experience is different, there are some common patterns in how people experience perfectionism. Perfectionistic people tend to have similar emotions and physical symptoms. They also tend to share similar thinking styles or patterns of thinking. Let’s take a look at some of these now. As we go through the symptoms, highlight each that applies to you. Based on your own experience, see if you can add any other examples to the list:
Common emotions include:
Common physical symptoms include:
- Muscle tension (e.g., in neck, shoulders, and jaw)
- Aches and pains
- Weakness or fatigue
- Frequent colds or other infections
- Pounding heart, sweating, breathlessness etc.
- Stomach pain, nausea or digestive problems
Common thoughts include:
- “I’ll never get this right”
- “I must try harder so I can be the best”
- “If I make a mistake, I’m a failure”
- “If I don’t do this perfectly, something bad will happen”
- “If I can’t do it perfectly, there’s no point in trying”
- “I must appear flawless and in control at all times”
- “I must always have the ‘right’ answer”
- “I don’t trust others to do things, so I end up doing everything myself”
- “I must be 100% sure before I proceed”
- “I have to do more and more in order to be acceptable”
- “It’s my fault if things aren’t done just right”
How did you go? Could you relate to any of the above ways of feeling or thinking? In addition to the above, we hope you were able to think of some other ways that perfectionism impacts you personally. In later weeks of this course, we cover perfectionistic thoughts and feelings in more depth and discuss ways to manage them.
When do high standards become a problem?
It’s true that holding yourself to certain standards can be helpful and lead to success. People who are able to set goals and follow through generally achieve more than those who don’t. However, there is a big difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy pursuit of perfection. Whilst both involve striving to meet high personal standards, the negative impact of failing to meet those standards is greater for perfectionists. Let’s look at the difference…
The healthy pursuit of excellence involves:
- Setting high standards that are challenging but not out of reach
- Acknowledging and appreciating ones achievements
- Accepting mistakes as part of the learning and growth process
- Moving on quickly from mistakes and not allowing them to impact self-worth
- Welcoming criticism and feedback as a tool for learning
- Knowing and feeling confident about one’s self-worth
The unhealthy pursuit of perfection involves:
- Setting unrealistically high standards that are unlikely to be attained
- Being unsatisfied with achievements and feeling like they’re never enough
- Experiencing mistakes and feedback as threatening
- Dwelling on and being defensive about mistakes
- Allowing mistakes and criticism to impact self-worth and confidence
- Persistent anxiety about being ‘good enough’
As you can see, there is a difference between simply having high standards and relentlessly pursuing perfection. Take a moment to reflect on whether you consider your high standards to be ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. Perhaps they are a bit of both, depending on the situation.
The dark side of perfectionism
As we have discussed so far, perfectionism comes at a cost. Whilst it is helpful to have goals and hold high standards for yourself, taking this too far can be unhealthy and prevent you from enjoying life. In many cases, striving for perfection can actually hinder your performance! This might sound alarming to you, given how much you value high standards. Let’s look at this paradoxical fact and the reasons why perfectionism can be unhelpful.
Your achievements are never enough
Firstly, the drive for perfection is never ending. This means that perfectionists always feel a sense of pressure to achieve their extremely high standards. As a result, they often feel on edge, stressed and unable to relax. Furthermore, once a standard is met, the bar is raised even further. In other words, perfectionism is not just about doing your best, but doing even better than before. So, regardless of your success and achievements, the satisfaction never lasts for long. ‘Good enough’ performance is a moving goal post that is never attainable.
You are never enough
Perfectionists base their self-worth entirely on their achievements. Following on from the above, when your achievements are never enough, you are never enough. As such, perfectionists often have low self-esteem and feel like a failure, even when they are extremely successful. Any positive feelings towards oneself are often short lived, as past successes are dismissed. This is the cost of holding inflexible and unattainable standards. There is no room for human error, which inevitably occurs for all of us.
Your relationships suffer
Constantly striving for the unattainable and never being satisfied with your efforts is exhausting. The pursuit for perfection can take a toll in all areas of a person’s life. Relationships often suffer, as people with perfectionism may struggle to give up control, withdraw emotionally, or focus excessively on the negatives. Perfectionists are also more prone to social isolation and poorer social skills, as they often avoid social situations due to their anxiety or because they are so focussed on achieving in other areas of life (e.g., work).
Your work and productivity suffers
As mentioned previously, work and educational achievements can also suffer. This includes performance in sport, music and the arts. Perfectionism makes it hard to perform efficiently, learn from mistakes, and manage your time effectively. It can also lead people to give up trying altogether. As a result, people with perfectionistic standards often underachieve. If they are able to keep up with demands, they do so at a great personal cost. As a result, perfectionists are also prone to burnout.
Your physical health suffers
The health impacts of perfectionism can be significant, with higher rates of physical illness amongst this group. Compared to non-perfectionists, people with perfectionism are more likely to suffer from conditions like chronic fatigue, diabetes, and heart disease. Perfectionists may also be prone to more infections due to a weakened immune response. The chronic stress associated with perfectionism plays a role in this link between perfectionism and ill health.
Your mental health suffers
Perfectionism is linked to a range of emotional problems, including feelings of worthlessness, failure, guilt and shame. Persistent worry is common, along with irritability and an inability to relax. In some cases, this may lead people to use drugs and alcohol as a way of coping. Problematic anger, hypersensitivity to criticism, poor body image, and a passive coping style are also associated with perfectionism. These factors can lead to issues like interpersonal conflict, self-blame, cosmetic procedures, and poor problem-solving.
Research has linked perfectionism with many damaging effects, including mental illnesses like anxiety disorders (particularly social anxiety), depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, insomnia and eating disorders. In severe cases, perfectionism is also associated with self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide. Furthermore, perfectionism often acts as a barrier to seeking help. Perfectionists are more likely to believe that seeking help is a sign of weakness or failure, which makes them particularly vulnerable to poor mental health.
So, as you can see, perfectionism has a dark side. As you were reading through this information, were there any negative consequences of perfectionism that you could relate to personally? Have a think about what your perfectionism has cost you. What have you given up and how have you suffered as a result of your excessive striving?
What causes perfectionism?
So far, we have discussed what perfectionism is and how it impacts people. Next, we turn to the topic of what causes perfectionism. Of course, there is no simple answer to this question. However, there are some common factors that have been linked to perfectionism. As you read on, it is important not to blame yourself or others for your difficulties. Instead, try to be curious about your early experiences and how they have shaped who you are today.
The following factors are thought to play a role in the development of perfectionism:
Genetics and temperament
Babies are born with a particular temperament, which guides the way that they think, act, and relate to others. Temperament tends to be relatively stable over time and is partly influenced by genetics. Particular temperaments have been linked to perfectionism, including the tendency to be conscientious, depend on rewards from others, and avoid risks.
Perfectionism is shaped largely by learning. For example, if you are praised or rewarded when you perform well, you learn that setting high standards is worth pursuing. Being praised or rewarded feels good, so you are more likely to do things that get you this response. You may have learned from a young age that “people are happy with me when I succeed”. As you carry this belief throughout your life, it can become more rigid and unhelpful (e.g., “people are only happy with me when I succeed”).
Similarly, learning can occur when we are punished or fail to receive a reward. If you were punished a lot for making mistakes as a child, you may have learned that making mistakes is ‘bad’. For example, if your parents criticised you on your homework, you may have developed the belief that “I must never make mistakes”. It can be just as harmful when we don’t receive positive feedback for our efforts. For example, if your parents did not acknowledge when you got 2nd place in a race, you may conclude that “A less than perfect performance is not good enough”.
Most of the research in this area has focused on the role of parenting in the development of perfectionism. The role of parenting is related to the concept of learning discussed above. Both harsh and perfectionistic parenting styles have been linked to perfectionism. Harsh parenting styles involve the frequent use of unreasonable demands and critical comments, whilst perfectionistic parenting occurs when parents are perfectionists themselves.
In other words, if your parents were overly critical or focussed on achievement, this may have played a role in the development of your perfectionism. Children also mimic the behaviour of those around them. So, if your parents were high achievers or focussed on their job, you may have developed the belief that “Work and achievements are more important than anything else”.
Social influences extend beyond parents to include peers, siblings, the school environment, and wider culture. Children with high-performing peers and/or siblings may become perfectionistic in an attempt to ‘fit in’. Similarly, media messages about unrealistic beauty ideals can have an impact, as people strive to meet these social markers of success.
Perfectionism may also develop out of unmet needs. We all have needs for things like predictability, acceptance, social belonging, and self-worth. If these needs are not met, anxiety is triggered. Perfectionist behaviour may then be triggered as a way of coping with the anxiety. For example, a child growing up in a chaotic environment may seek perfection to regain a sense of order and control. A child who feels unloved may adopt perfectionist behaviour in order to gain the approval and acceptance of others and avoid the pain of judgement.
Rather than acting in isolation, the above factors likely interact with each other to produce perfectionism. A combination of several factors will make it more likely that a person will develop perfectionism. Before moving on, have a think about how these factors relate to you. What do you think played a role in the development of your perfectionism? Were there any significant early life experiences, or does it seem as though you were just ‘born with it’?
A model of perfectionism
Have you ever been overwhelmed by something, only to learn more about it and realise it isn’t as big as you first thought? Perfectionism is no different. Once we understand how perfectionism works, we are in a much better position to do something about it. Here, we discuss one model of perfectionism, which explains how perfectionism is triggered and maintained. As you’ll see, this model helps us to understand how we can break the vicious cycle of perfectionism.
To help with your understanding, let’s break this model down into its parts.
Self-worth based on achievement
Fundamental to the definition of perfectionism is the idea that your self-esteem is based on striving for and meeting a set of high standards. It is not so much the goals or standards that are the problem, but rather that you evaluate your self-worth and value based on these things. The model shows that your perfectionism begins with and is maintained by this very problem.
Overvaluing achievement to the extent that it defines your self-worth leads you to set inflexible and unrelenting standards. These standards are extremely high, to the point that they are either unachievable, or achievable only at a great personal cost. Standards often come in the form of rigid rules, such as “I must always perform my best” or “I should always receive good grades”.
Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours
To ensure that you meet your unrelenting standards, you engage in perfectionistic ways of thinking and behaving. There are many unhelpful biases involved in perfectionistic thinking, and we cover these in depth in Week 2. As an example, you probably tend to focus more on your mistakes and signs of failure than you do on your successes. As you go about trying to meet your standards, you also engage in the types of perfectionistic behaviours we have already discussed. This includes things like excessive checking, making comparisons, reassurance seeking, avoidance and procrastination.
Evaluation of performance against standards
In this step, you evaluate your performance in terms of whether or not you have met your standards. There are three possible outcomes at this point, including:
- You temporarily meet your standards This is where you feel that your performance has met your standards (for now). You may experience some short term relief, however, this rarely lasts. Perfectionists tend to minimise their success. You may conclude that you “got there by chance” or that “anyone could have done it”.
- You fail to meet your standards This is where you determine that your efforts do not measure up. People with perfectionism commonly experience this outcome, resulting in intense self-criticism. You may label yourself a ‘failure’ and therefore reinforce the idea that you are unworthy unless you meet your standards.
- You give up or avoid trying to meet your standards This is where you procrastinate or give up altogether due to intense anxiety. In this case, the outcome is the same as when you fail to meet your standards. The result is intense self-criticism and thoughts about needing to try harder. Again, this reinforces the idea that your worth is based on meeting your standards.
Reappraisal of standards
As mentioned above, if you temporarily meet your standards, you are likely to discount your achievement. For example, you attribute your success to external factors or conclude it was a matter of chance. You therefore feel dissatisfied and conclude that your standards weren’t high enough. As a result, you reset your standards even higher and try to do better next time.
This creates a vicious cycle and feeds back into the idea that your self-worth is determined by striving for and meeting exceedingly high standards. After meeting your standards, constantly reinterpreting them as being too low means you never feel good enough. This is why many perfectionists feel like chronic failures, despite their many successes.
Unhelpful behaviour and self-criticism
If you fail to meet your standards or you give up and avoid trying altogether, you are likely to engage in unhelpful behaviours and self-criticism. Unhelpful behaviours aim to reduce your anxiety about not meeting your standards, however, they often have the opposite effect.
For example, you might try to overcompensate for your ‘failure’ by engaging in excessive planning, over preparing, and checking behaviours. Unfortunately, this just results in poorer performance. Similarly, you may be highly critical of yourself, which just keeps you stuck in the vicious cycle of perfectionism.
As you can see from the model, there are several factors that keep perfectionism going. These include the way we think about and interpret success, perfectionism behaviours, self-esteem and self-criticism. In other words, there are both cognitive (thinking) and behavioural (acting) factors that need to be addressed to break the vicious cycle. In the following weeks, you will learn skills to address each of these maintaining factors to help you better manage your perfectionism.
Understanding perfectionism in your own life
We have talked a lot about perfectionism in general terms. In this section, we want you to apply what you’ve learned so far to yourself. Take a moment to think about how perfectionism appears in your own life. Below are some questions to get you started:
- In what areas of my life do I set particularly high standards for myself? (e.g., work, study, cleaning, health etc.)
- What are my rules for living? (e.g., “I must always look good when I leave the house”, “I must always give 100%” etc.)
- How do I feel when I make mistakes or fail to meet my standards? What thoughts run through my mind in these situations?
Great job on getting this far. We have covered a lot about perfectionism, and you’ve done well to stick with us! In the next section, we briefly discuss Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which forms the foundation for the remainder of this course.
What is CBT?
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based psychological treatment. CBT has been tested widely by researchers to ensure that it is a safe and effective treatment. Research has shown that CBT is one of the most effective treatments for a range of mental health concerns. Specifically, there is evidence that CBT is effective for treating perfectionism.
The aim of CBT is to help you identify and challenge unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving. CBT is based on the idea that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are all connected. It assumes that negative patterns of thinking and behaving can keep you stuck and feeling lousy. CBT helps you deal with problems by breaking them down and challenging the negative patterns that maintain them. By teaching you new and more helpful ways of responding, CBT can help improve the way you feel.
CBT is traditionally delivered in structured, face to face settings with a trained therapist. However, access to this kind of therapy is not always convenient or available to everyone. Our online courses aim to make support more available to those who need it. There is growing evidence to suggest that CBT delivered in an online format is just as effective as face to face sessions. However, this course is not intended to be a substitute for therapy with a qualified health practitioner.
CBT is based on several key principles or assumptions, which are important to know and remember throughout this course. CBT involves learning skills to help reduce your unwanted symptoms. It helps you reduce unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving, whilst teaching you new and more helpful strategies.
Here are some of the CBT principles:
- CBT is focussed on problems in the here and now, meaning it aims to solve current problems rather than delve into the past or find the origins of these problems.
- CBT requires goal setting to help guide the therapy and evaluate your progress. Goals should be realistic and related to the problems you are facing.
- CBT aims to be time-limited, meaning that you work towards overcoming your problems within a set time frame. This can help keep you on track towards your goals.
- CBT uses a variety of techniques to help you change your thoughts, actions, and mood.
- CBT encourages active participation in therapy and requires you to practice the skills between sessions. Skills practice is essential for achieving lasting change.
- CBT teaches you to become your own therapist, by involving you in the therapy process and ensuring that you understand how to manage unhelpful thoughts and behaviours. This is essential for preventing a return to old habits once therapy has finished.
Keep these principles in mind as you move through the course. Pay particular attention to the importance of active participation in CBT. We strongly encourage you to be an active participant to get the most out of this course. Each week, we will give you an ‘action plan’ to complete before you return for the following week. The aim of the action plan is to guide your practice of the skills in your daily life.
How can CBT help with perfectionism?
As we have seen, there are several factors that keep perfectionism going. CBT offers a range of skills that can address each of these factors and help you break free from the vicious cycle of perfectionism.
These skills include:
- Cognitive skills to address your unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and interpretations
- Behavioural strategies to reduce perfectionistic behaviours
- Specific skills to target procrastination and improve your time management
- Mindfulness skills to help with acceptance, self-compassion and self-forgiveness
As you may have experienced first-hand, perfectionism can make your world shrink.
You live in a constant state of anxiety and distress, as you try to reach an ever moving target of ‘good enough’. Your interests become narrowed, as you sacrifice other things that are important to you, all in the name of success. Over time, this becomes debilitating. However, by teaching you new ways of thinking and behaving, CBT can help you redefine your relationship with perfectionism and break free from it for good.
Making a commitment to change
Change is hard. As outlined above, CBT assumes that people must commit to practicing the skills if they are to achieve real improvement. This section includes exercises that aim to help you do just that. To give yourself the best chance of success in this course, you will need to make sure your motivation levels stay high. One way to maintain your motivation for change is to be clear on the reasons why you want to change.
Exercise: Reasons for change
Take a moment to think about your reasons for change. We have provided you with some examples to get you started. We also encourage you to come up with your own reasons.
For example, I want to:
- Let go of my unrealistic expectations
- Improve my mood and general wellbeing
- Improve my self-esteem
- Be able to relax and enjoy social events
- Prioritise fun over performance
- Let go of perfectionism behaviours (e.g., checking, avoiding etc.)
- Improve my efficiency and productivity
- Acknowledge and enjoy my successes
- Gain a sense of freedom in my life
Exercise: Pros and cons of change
Hopefully, you have had a think about your reasons for change. We now encourage you to think about the potential benefits and costs of working to overcome perfectionism in your life. Use the downloadable form to record the pros and cons of trying the skills you’ll learn here versus not trying the skills and staying the same. Once you have done this, weigh the list of pros and cons and ask yourself which option will get you closer to your goals.
Exercise: Self-contract and goal setting
If you’ve decided to commit to change, well done! We encourage you to formalise this commitment by making a contract with yourself. You can complete the downloadable self-contract, which prompts you to set a goal or goals, consider the steps you’ll need to take to achieve this goal, and set a reward for following through. You may also want to enlist the support of friends and family on this journey, as they can help keep you accountable and on track towards success.