Part I: Catching the Thinking Traps of Perfectionism

Many of our patients here at CTWPS struggle with perfectionism in one way or another.  By perfectionism, we mean holding high standards for herself in any area of her life and then becoming overly self-critical or anxious if she does not meet that high standard.  While many women consider perfectionism to be a positive characteristic, we as therapists see the darker side of perfectionism - when the experience of imperfection results in distress, depression or anxiety for a patient.   

In our practice, we find that women can develop evaluations of themselves that are contingent upon personally demanding, self-imposed standards. For example, consider a woman who believes that she must deliver her presentation flawlessly in order to be considered competent in her work, or a woman who is overly self-punishing if she falls a few pounds short of her target weight, despite consistent dedication to her new diet and major health improvements.  Whether it be the constant striving to meet perfectionistic ideals, or the idea that imperfection on the path towards achieving reasonable goals should result in major (often self-imposed) consequences, perfectionism can be an unhealthy mindset for women.  Perfectionism has been linked with such negative consequences as anxiety and low mood, poor nutrition from excessive exercise or dieting, poor concentration, or even procrastination at work to avoid feeling imperfect.  

There are certain cognitive biases, or thinking styles, that are most prominent among women who hold themselves to perfectionistic standards.  Do you find that you go beyond setting high standards, such that your sense of self feels contingent upon how well you live up to these standards?  If so, it may be helpful to examine the impact that your thinking has on your mood. Below are three common thinking biases to consider:

1.  Selective Attention

Do you find that you’re really skilled at noticing the negative aspects of your performance and discounting the positive?  Consider a woman who has recently been promoted to a more senior position in her organization for her stellar performance, but who constantly feels as if she is failing at work, and who worries tremendously about making mistakes.  When this woman makes a minor mistake, such as a typo in a memo, she automatically discounts the positive aspects of her performance, such as her promotion and praise from her boss.  Even more, because of her style of thinking, she concludes that she’s a failure.  In this instance, this woman actually confirmed her negative belief about herself as “failure” by attending disproportionately to negative information.  

In therapy, we would work to help this woman recognize her pattern of scrutinizing her own performance.  We may invite this woman to keep a record of provocative situations (e.g., her typo), her corresponding negative thoughts (e.g., “I’m a failure”), and ways to broaden her attention in the moment so as to notice actual evidence of her performance, ultimately arriving at a more balanced view of herself (e.g., “When I consider the evidence, the memo was well-written and effective overall”).  We may also invite this woman to keep a record of her positive achievements, so as to become more balanced in the attention she devotes to her view of herself. 

2.  Double Standards

Are the rules you set for yourself stricter than your rules for others?  It’s quite common for overly perfectionistic women to hold themselves to strict, difficult-to-achieve standards, but to adapt a more flexible set of standards for others.  For example, let’s imagine that, when asked, the woman described above explains that she believes it’s reasonable for other people to make occasional grammatical errors in their memos without discounting their intelligence, and yet, believes it’s unacceptable for her to make such a mistake.  In expecting more of herself than she does of others, this woman becomes quite vulnerable to self-criticism.  For example, she may tell herself, “Because I’ve made this mistake, I’m a failure at my job.”  This critical self-talk likely has a cascade of consequences for her, such as over-compensating by spending exaggerated amounts of time checking over her memos before sending them to her team, or beating herself up such that it becomes difficult to concentrate and meet future deadlines.  

In therapy, we would work with this woman to consider whether it’s fair to have harsher rules for herself than for others.  We would work together to track instances wherein her double standards are activated, and together, we would explore the impact of holding double standards on her self-esteem and mood.  

3.  “Should” and “Must” Statements

What do you tell yourself to get motivated when you have to get something done?  Often, perfectionistic women attempt to motivate themselves, and to protect against poor performance, with “should” statements, such as “I shouldn’t make any mistakes at work” or “I should always work harder.”  At CTWPS, we work with women to think of this type of self-talk as overly rigid, and to recognize that it can have potentially destructive emotional consequences.  For example, let’s imagine you have a friend who wants to exercise more regularly, and she says to you, “My goal is to exercise 7 days a week.”  How might this pressure make her feel?  Likely, she would feel highly stressed because she inevitably cannot live up to this goal consistently! 

In therapy, we invite women to self-monitor, and keep track of how often throughout the day or week they use “should” or “must” language, as a way to highlight how ingrained this style of self-talk may be. We also work with women to log their absolutist thinking, and to replace such statements with flexible preferences, such as: “I would like to exercise more regularly.”  We know as psychologists that setting more readily attainable goals actually results in better outcomes than setting extremely high goals.   With practice, women find that their performance actually improves when they set more flexible and reasonable goals for themselves.  This is most likely because imperfection and setbacks are part of every goal that has ever been achieved.   

For so many women, a sense of striving for perfection can be a consuming thread in their lives.  Here at CTWPS, we believe that every woman has within her the potential to achieve her goals while living a balanced life that includes time to relax, socialize, and pursue varied interests.  In fact, those factors are known to enhance performance overall.  In our practice, we actively work to help women to identify and challenge the thinking biases that keep their perfectionism in place, to experiment with more flexible behaviors, and to cultivate more realistic and compassionate expectations of themselves - not because we don’t want to encourage ambition, but because we actually want our patients to be highly successful.

This post is Part I in a series on cognitive-behavioral approaches for perfectionism.  Check back for more posts in this series coming soon.