As young children, many of us can remember being told by our parents that we were to do our best or try harder. This is a very common experience and may seem quite harmless. For some children, however, these messages are powerful and leave a lasting impression. They may gradually start to define themselves based on their performance and achievements. Parents will praise straight A’s and success in other areas such as sports or hobbies. Failures are seen as things to avoid, partly due to fear of criticism or punishment from people in authority. This can be the beginning of a performance-based identity that is at the heart of perfectionism. A perfectionist is a person who has very high, often unrealistic standards for themselves and others. They are often afraid of making mistakes because they might be viewed as weak, incompetent or defective. They are often people-pleasers and focus more on meeting the needs and demands of others. Fear, shame and control issues are at the root of perfectionism.
When we define ourselves by what we do versus who we are, our sense of self-worth and value will tend to fluctuate. On the days when we have experienced many successes, we may feel like we have our act together and our self-esteem may be high. Likewise, during those times of defeat or weakness, we may feel a sense of shame or worthlessness. In our western culture, we tend to regard strength, accomplishments, and success very highly. What have we gained if we strive to meet these very high standards but are not enjoying our relationships, jobs and leisure activities, essentially our lives?
First, let us begin with some questions that may assist you in clarifying the main issues. How do you define your self-worth? Are you living life based on your core values and principles? Are you placing more emphasis on activities, success, and wealth? What kind of legacy do you want to leave your children and/or grandchildren? Consider the standards you have placed on yourself. Are they realistic or unrealistic? Who or what are you really living for? Are you pleasing God, yourself or others?
Secondly, people who struggle with perfectionism tend to engage in cognitive distortions. This pertains to distorted ways of thinking that can lead to anxiety and depression as well as negative and unhealthy behavior patterns. Some of these styles of thinking include: All or Nothing thinking, Filtering, Mind Reading, Tunnel Vision, Personalization and Catastrophic Thinking. An excellent resource for dealing with perfectionism and thinking styles is the book When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough by Martin Antony, Ph.D. and Richard Swinson, M.D.
Stay tuned next Monday for more on perfectionism!
By Rosa Cabezas Fetterman, Psy.D.