Are You a Perfectionist?

To be perfectionistic means to have very high standards and expectations.  Is that bad, you ask?  Not necessarily.  Although perfectionism can be adaptive when it leads to high productivity and life satisfaction, it can be maladaptive when it leads to being self-critical, angry, or not having a life balance between work and recreation.

Joan is an example of someone who does not recognize that she is a perfectionist.  Her children’s clothes must always be ironed and she must look perfect in all situations, even when attending a child’s soccer game.  She can never “order in” for dinner since she demands of herself that each meal be a culinary wonder and be healthy as well.  She is up late every night planning the next day’s meals and events and is often found prepping food or doing laundry after midnight.  Despite her husband’s pleas for her to relax, Joan rarely gets a good night’s sleep because she cannot modify the rules she lives by.  She must be a perfect wife and mother; however, her lack of sleep and stress over her high standards often lead to irritability, anxiety that she has left things undone, and fear that her husband and family don’t think she is good enough.

So what does it mean to have high standards and expectations that are maladaptive?  It means that you adhere rigidly to your excessively high standards and there is no room for deviation from your “rules.”.  It also means that you judge yourself by your ability to meet those unrealistically high standards, and when you cannot you feel distress, unhappiness,  or anxiety.

Perfectionism is not a mental health diagnosis but it is a quality that can span many different diagnoses, like Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and others.  It can also interfere with a person’s ability to be productive in psychotherapy if she thinks she is not doing well enough or getting better fast enough. 

At the core of perfectionism are the words should, must, or have to.  Does this sound like you?

I have to answer my emails within 8 hours.

I should never leave things undone at work.

I must be the most active class parent.

My child should be the most popular.

Our lawn should be mowed every 5 days.

Psychological inflexibility is another key element of perfectionism.   People who are perfectionistic cannot modify their rules to meet the needs of a unique situation.  They avoid certain situations in order to avoid feelings of inadequacy or failure and don’t always behave in ways that are consistent with their values.  This may result in maladaptive behaviors such as procrastination, overworking, or isolation.  They worry about past mistakes and how they will perform in the future and have trouble being present in the now.

If you think you are a perfectionist, and if it is interfering with your enjoyment of life, think about starting therapy so that you can learn skills to help you feel better.  Need to discuss your unique situation?  Give my office a call at 732-933-1333.