Are those well-intended high expectations, harming your emotional health?
LaNae Valentine, Ph.D., with BYU Women’s Services shares tips for replacing the drive for perfection, with inner peace.
Some of us have very high expectations, perhaps too-high. Often these expectations center on our ideas of what it means to be successful and how we measure success. Other times we might simply have a lot of interests and things we want to do. We would like to think that we can do it all, especially those things we enjoy. Yet, these high expectations and our over-scheduled lives can create a lot of stress and rob us of inner peace.
A habitual clinging to high expectations can seep into our psyche and create a pervasive personality style that we call perfectionism. Those suffering from perfectionism tend to be wonderful, contributing, and effective people, and yet may feel that no matter what they do, it is never enough. They are never quite satisfied with themselves and their accomplishments and rarely feel content and at peace with their lives.
The idea of lowering their expectations does not set well with them because perfectionists fear that if they give up perfectionism, they won’t be good at anything anymore; they’ll fall apart. The thought of being mediocre makes them cringe. In their minds self-worth equals performance. Thus, lowering the bar would lower their performance, lower other people’s opinions of them and lower their own sense of worth.
In reality, research shows that being a perfectionist actually interferes with performance. Perfectionism increases stress and stress reduces performance. Perfectionism is highly correlated with both depression and anxiety. Excessive stress can lead to biochemical changes in the body and especially in the brain that make it difficult to think clearly, concentrate and store things in memory. Perfectionism also frequently plays a role in eating disorders.
Other characteristics of perfectionists that impede their performance is their tendency to exaggerate their minor mistakes, weaknesses, or shortcomings to the point that they may not function as well as if they were kinder and gentler with themselves. Constant comparisons to others can create stress, cloud one’s peace and hinder performance.
Psychologists who have studied the link between perfectionism and emotional distress have identified some thinking distortions that perfectionists use to interpret their experiences. One of the most common is ‘all-or-nothing thinking’. Perfectionists see themselves either as successes or failures with nothing in between. They interpret their performance only as good or bad.
A second distortion is basing self-worth on the tyranny of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. Perfectionists believe that they must never make a mistake and they should always perform perfectly in order to be a worthwhile person. Perfectionists experience excessive shame in making mistakes. They are overly sensitive to what others think. Success is measured by validation from others and by meeting external standards.
Perfectionist also believe that they must excel in all things all of the time. If they see areas of weakness or cannot do everything well, they feel inadequate and unworthy.
The following table illustrates the difference between a healthy striving to do one’s best and perfectionism.
Doing Your Best
Sets obtainable, realistic goals.
Self worth is inherent.
Can rejoice in growth and progression.
Doing your best without comparing yourself to others.
Recognizing that mistakes are part
of the learning process.
Can learn from mistakes and keep trying.
Finding joy in the process of growth.
Confidence to try even when the task is hard.
Able to keep life balanced and “let go” of less important things when overwhelmed.
Can trust in a process of change and growth.
Sets unrealistic goals.
Self worth is based on achievement.
Never feeling satisfied or good enough.
Comparing yourself with others or having to be “the best” in all you do.
Intense fear of failure. Mistakes result in feeling shame and humiliation.
Feeling driven by fear or duty.
Afraid to try unless you can do something “perfectly”.
Procrastination because of fear.
Having to “do it all.” Constantly feeling Necessary.
Reliance only on one’s own control and ability.
Some Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism
Become Aware of Your Tendencies:
You may not realize how pervasive perfectionism can be. By becoming more aware of your patterns, you’re in a better position to alter them. If you’re able, it’s a great idea to record your perfectionistic thoughts as they pop into your head. If it’s impractical for you to jot thoughts down as they come, it’s a great idea to go over your day each night and remember the times when you felt you’d failed, or hadn’t done well enough, and write down what you thought at the time. This will help you become more aware of perfectionistic thoughts as they come to you in the future. (e.g., all-or-nothing thinking)
See the Positive:
If you’re struggling with perfectionism, you probably have honed the skill of spotting mistakes in even the best works of others and of yourself. You may just naturally look for it, and notice it above all other things. While this habit may be difficult to just stop, you can soften your tendency to notice the bad by making a conscious effort to notice all that is good with your work and the achievements of others. If you notice something you don’t like about yourself or your work, for example, look for five other qualities that you do like. This will balance out your critical focus and become a positive new habit.
Alter Your Self-Talk:
Those who wrestle with perfectionism tend to have a critical voice in their head telling them their work isn’t good enough, they’re not trying hard enough, and they’re not good enough. If you’re going to overcome perfectionism, you need to work on changing this inner voice!
Take Baby Steps:
Perfectionists tend to set goals of unreasonable excellence with no learning curve. These goals tend to be unrealistic and cause problems by being so rigidly demanding and leaving little room for error. Instead, you can reduce a lot of stress by changing your goals. You don’t have to sacrifice the end result, but if you set bite-sized goals for yourself and reward yourself when you achieve them, you’ll tend to be more forgiving with mistakes. (e.g., exercise or weight loss)
Enjoy the Process:
You may be used to focusing on results, and beating yourself up if your results are less than perfect. One important way to recover from perfectionism is to begin focusing more on the process of reaching toward a goal, rather than just focusing on the goal itself. The previous suggestion (setting baby steps) can help you create more of an enjoyable process out of your striving. If you find you don’t achieve perfection, you can then reflect back and see all that you’ve gained in just working toward a worthy goal, assessing and appreciating the gains you did make in the process.