Everyone has an image of a “perfectionist” in their mind—the person with the meticulously organized house, the work desk without a pencil out of place, who works fervently day and night to make sure not a mistake passes on their watch. Despite the stigma and stereotypes, perfectionism is neither inherently good nor all bad. And a lot of it depends on where the motivation for perfectionism begins.
Researchers have identified three main types of perfectionism. The first is self-oriented perfectionism, wherein the individual has high standards for the self. This person may think, “I need to do better on this because I know that it isn’t the best that I can do,” or, “I have to redo this. I never do anything right.”
The second type of perfectionism is socially prescribed perfectionism. This person feels the external pressure of family members, coworkers, and bosses, or society in general, to live up to a high standard. They may think, “If I don’t do better, I’m going to let everyone down!”
The third type of perfectionism is others-oriented perfectionism. This person holds others to intense scrutiny and, at times, unrealistic standards. They might be the micromanaging boss at work, the parent who nitpicks the child who left socks on the bathroom floor, or the child who is constantly correcting other students in class when they make minor grammatical errors.
Recognize yourself in any of these? A family member or coworker, perhaps?
By recognizing the root cause of the perfectionism, anybody can work to engage in healthy perfectionism and avoid being torn down by maladaptive coping skills associated with unhealthy perfectionistic habits. This doesn’t involve changing the worldview or personality of the person with perfectionism; the first step is to recognize how thought patterns impact the way a person feels about a situation. Again, being a perfectionist is a strength in many ways! One would hope that the heart surgeon in the operating room has a few perfectionistic tendencies. But counterproductive thinking patterns associated with unhealthy perfectionism can cause a lot of worry and anxiety.
Here are five steps to breaking the patterns of unhealthy perfectionism:
- Learn to strive for excellence! The No. 1 thing that people with productive perfectionistic tendencies are able to do is enjoy the challenge of a difficult task without getting distracted and distraught by minor errors or perceived imperfections. (Remember: sometimes a mistake that a perfectionist sees would never be noticed by another person.)
- Change negative thought patterns to realistic, positive coping statements. Change the thought, “I always mess up everything!” to “I make mistakes. Sometimes I can fix them and sometimes I can’t, but if I’m doing my best, I know I can feel proud of myself.” It is important to focus on creating realistic coping statements; statements that are too positive (“I am great at everything I try to do!”) lose their power often because they are too general.
- Prioritize activities and tasks by importance. People who get caught up in the minor details sometimes lose sight of the big picture and may become procrastinating perfectionists. Prioritizing the importance of things can also be effective for the others-oriented perfectionist because it can help put into perspective the real impact of constantly critiquing others for minor flaws.
- Set specific and manageable goals. Perfectionists often become overwhelmed by the daunting nature of the tasks they undertake. At times, they may have difficulty delegating responsibilities to other team members (a form of others-oriented perfectionism). By finding one small goal that would improve the nature of one’s perfectionism and feeling the success associated with it, step-by-step progress can be made to move from unhealthy to healthier perfectionism.
- Find a buddy. One confidant who can share the struggle and help to (kindly!) bring awareness to negative thought patterns or destructive perfectionistic strategies can be great. Perfectionists often feel like they should be able to solve all of their problems on their own; by taking a team approach, it helps them to look at the unhealthy patterns from an outside perspective and make the changes that will ultimately lead to increased happiness and contentment.
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