TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – In so many areas in life, the pressure to operate with perfect execution is substantial.
So much so that sometimes the expectation of perfectionism can become a debilitating burden.
Though perfectionism has helped many high achievers and people with Type A personalities climb to the top of their class, work, sport, or other fields, it also has many downsides. The negative aspects of perfectionism have to be managed or paralyzing mental anguish can follow, said Dr. Sha-Rhonda Green, assistant professor of social work.
“Let’s first define perfectionism,” Green said. “It’s not a mental illness, but a personality style. It’s not a mental health issue either, but sometimes it’s closely correlated with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“It is an unrelenting striving to be flawless, do it perfect the first time. It also involves a lot of critical self-evaluation and angst about how others view you. There’s sometimes a lot of insecurity that comes with it.”
Perfectionism’s dark side
Green said perfectionism can be motivated by fear, cause sleeplessness due to rumination, stomach and body aches, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, be very debilitating and all-consuming to the point that other aspects of life get neglected.
“There can be some healthiness to it in terms of someone saying ‘hey, I am challenging myself, I have high standards and goals and I learn from my mistakes.’ But on the other side, it can be very maladaptive where people set unrealistic goals and become obsessive to the point of not doing the activity at all if they feel they can’t do it perfectly.
“It’s an all or nothing attitude and if they don’t achieve the goals set, then they can shut down.”
How do people become perfectionists?
Green said because American society is capitalistic with rewards given for achievement, performative values are a part of the culture. And when those become attached to how a person receives love, gets attention and understands their self-value or worthiness, wanting to win gets “super embedded” in a person’s psyche.
As with most mentalities, this often develops in childhood.
“You may have parents who have those same type of behaviors and put that on their children by being highly negative and disapproving if they aren’t perfect,” she said. “There’s always this goal of doing it the best, perfect the first time, or they’ll receive a loss of love from their parents.”
Sometimes, Green said, perfectionism is connected to childhood trauma where a person had to step in and overperform to fix a problem that wasn’t being addressed. This can create a superhero persona where a person thinks they’re the only one who can fix a problem.
How to manage it
Green said perfectionists need to have realistic goals and expectations and know who they are.
“The individual needs to at least acknowledge that it’s OK to be just good at something while trying to be perfect at it. Sometimes allow yourself to have playful creativity where mistakes are made during the learning and discovery process.”
She also suggests cognitive behavioral therapy as a means to deal with perfectionism.
“Human beings are beautiful and messy. We get to live as ratchet or pristine as we want. We all have different ways to try to survive when our essential needs are threatened.
“This isn’t something to be ashamed of, but with anything, there has to be some kind of acknowledgment of it, including people giving you feedback about it. People need help sometimes seeing the big picture and being able to shift their mindset around it.
“Therapy isn’t a bad thing to get at any time in your life. You need someone to talk to so you don’t feel so overwhelmed.”