The Costs of Perfectionism
(and How to Work with Them)
When Perfectionism Takes More Than It Gives
People often think of perfectionism as something to be admired, something to strive towards. After all, there is a certain thrill of mastery and sense of accomplishment for the perfectionist themself.
Not to mention — perfectionistic tendencies are constantly socially reinforced. High achievement often leads to respect from others. Someone who is a perfectionist in terms of cleanliness will be complimented on how lovely their home is, and a perfectionist at work will be thanked by their clients and praised by their boss. What employer wouldn’t want a worker who goes the extra mile?
But in the midst of these benefits, we can quickly forget just how much perfectionism costs.
For example, let’s think for a moment about a lawyer with a tendency towards perfectionism.
She spends hundreds of hours on each case, preparing as though she would be presenting to the Supreme Court. Her clients reap the benefits of this work, and her consistent success lends her quite the reputation at the firm — which leads her boss to continue assigning her more and harder cases.
Now, this woman knows that she takes longer on each case than most of her colleagues, and to be fair to her clients, only bills them for the hours she thinks the case should have taken — causing her to ultimately lose money. She gets embarrassed when people comment on how late she stays at the office, so she begins taking her work home with her.
Of course, this means her work encroaches on her personal life. She is late for dates and is constantly distracted, causing fights with her girlfriend. She rarely sees her friends. She loses sleep and skips meals in order to iron out every wrinkle in her cases.
This woman becomes depressed. She starts procrastinating on her work for fear that she’ll make a mistake, ultimately lowering her productivity.
When perfectionism takes hold, physical and mental health, relationships, and even quality of work can suffer. That’s why it’s so important that we recognize these patterns — and build a toolbox of strategies to help our clients shift out of their perfectionistic mindset.
How Perfectionism Can Become Deeply Rooted in the Nervous System
But often, a client’s perfectionism isn’t simple to unravel. In fact, the roots of perfectionism are planted even before birth.
In the final two months of gestation, implicit memory is starting to be formed. Because of the relative stability of the environment in the womb, that memory gives us an innate sense of control over our environment. But from birth onward, we must cope with the loss of the homeostasis of the womb, leaving many of us with a desire to reclaim control. As Joan Borysenko, PhD, once said, “Every human being on the face of the earth shares the same addiction, and that is the addiction to control.”
But perfectionism can develop later on, as well.
Take, for example, a boy who grew up in a chaotic and sometimes dangerous family. His parents were highly critical, and mistakes were often excessively punished. So, to avoid punishment, this boy’s nervous system stayed in a perpetual state of high-alert, and he made a point to do things perfectly.
This sort of perfectionism was adaptive for the boy, helping him to stay safe in an unpredictable environment. But this survival strategy was so important in his developmental years, it became almost obsessive as he grew older.
To him, any little mistake is a cue of danger.
Even in adulthood, perfectionism is often encouraged. Thinking back to our example of the lawyer, her boss’s trust and praise, her client’s thankfulness and relief, and her coworker’s respect all feed into the human evolutionary need to belong.
In situations like this, society demands productivity to earn belongingness. But sometimes what is asked of us isn’t what the body needs.
Part of the desire for belongingness is rooted in the body’s need for co-regulation. But perfectionism is isolating, and as this lawyer worked excessively for belongingness in her work environment, she pushed away her girlfriend, who she might have been able to co-regulate with. Thus, the nervous system keeps many perfectionists in a perpetual cycle of approval-seeking and loneliness.
Understanding Two Distinct Types of Perfectionism
To make matters more complicated, not all perfectionism looks the same.
In fact, according to Jutta Stahl, PhD, and her research team at the University of Cologne, perfectionists with different motivations actually respond to mistakes in different ways.
This research was based around the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which uses four key factors to determine the nature and extent of someone’s perfectionism:
- Concern over mistakes and doubts about actions
- Excessive concern with parents’ expectations and evaluation
- Excessively high personal standards
- Concern with precision, order and organization
Jutta and her team found that clients with high scores in Personal Standards Perfectionism showed significantly higher brain activity while doing a task specifically designed for mistakes to be made. This group also showed that brain activity slowed down after making an error, allowing them to evaluate and correct the mistake before moving forward. However, high scorers in Evaluative Concern Perfectionism did not show this pattern.
So, what does this mean for understanding perfectionists?
Personal Standard Perfectionists are self-motivated and resilient. They tend to handle errors effectively to improve their performance going forward. Alternatively, Evaluative Concern Perfectionists are socially driven and their perfectionism stems from external judgement. Therefore, they handle error correction much less effectively.
This shows us that working through perfectionism with clients is not one-size fits all. We must first distinguish between the adaptive and destructive patterns of perfectionism, and address the neurobiological roots in order to devise strategies to correct harmful patterns of perfectionism.
First Steps in Disrupting a Cycle of Perfectionism
As we know, many clients with patterns of perfectionism developed such from the pressures of their parents growing up — and perfectionism in one’s own work is often translated into expecting perfection from one’s children, creating a generational cycle.
But while we can’t erase formative experiences from a client’s past, we can help them to break the chain from which perfectionism is derived.
That’s why often, one of the first steps in working with perfectionists must involve identifying and reprocessing the trauma that created the behaviors in the first place.
For some clients, this may include looking at times they were made to feel guilt or shame by teachers, family, and peers. For other clients, it can help to be reminded that this is a shared cultural experience. Many people are raised to believe that we need to be perfect, and we all must grow to let go of these unhealthy and unrealistic expectations. So often, clients can find solace and empowerment in knowing that we don’t have to instill these cultural ideals in future generations.
The Role of Self-Compassion in Combatting Perfectionism
So how can we help clients manage all of these self-critical feelings driving their perfectionism?
Many effective techniques come from the realm of compassion-focused therapy. In fact, Melanie Greenberg, PhD, suggests a simple, three-step technique: Soften, Soothe, and Allow.
This, first, involves helping a client locate where in the body the difficulty is kept, connecting the brain to the body. Once they’ve located it, we can practice breathing into the troubled area to soften the feeling. Then, self-soothing can take the form of massaging the neck or holding oneself — anything that can bring up a feeling of comfort and self-accepting. Finally, we help our clients allow the feeling to be in the body. Rather than letting go of the feeling completely, it’s important that clients accept the existence of the feeling, and re-direct their focus to self-acceptance anyway.
This simple process can help clients expand their window of tolerance for the distress around small imperfections, opening the possibility of behavioral experiments.
Of course, suggesting a perfectionist client purposefully make a mistake as part of a behavioral experiment can be a tough sell. So, as we move into that step, it may be useful to look at where in their lives they already allow small imperfections. Does a client allow their children to leave for school without making their beds? Then perhaps they might leave for work one morning without making theirs.
The less impact a behavioral experiment has on the primary focus of their perfectionism, the more tolerance a client will have for it. By showing that each little imperfection doesn’t add up to disaster in this way, we can eventually help clients start applying that idea to their main goal.
Want more ideas and strategies you can use with your clients today?
To learn more about the roots of perfectionism, and other sustainable strategies to alleviate it, check out some of our courses:
How to Work with a Client’s Perfectionism
3.75 CE/CME Credits Available
Working With Core Beliefs of “Never Good Enough”
4 CE/CME Credits Available
Master Series on the Clinical Application of Compassion
14 CE/CME Credits Available
Expert Strategies for Working with Impostor Syndrome
3.25 CE/CME Credits Available