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By Conan Deady, USM Health & Counselling Intern

Are you a perfectionist? If so, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Psychologists have long sought to distinguish perfectionism, which is regarded as a source of distress, from the healthy pursuit of excellence, which is a positive attribute.  

A perfectionist generally sets excessively high personal standards and resists the adjustment of those standards to a more realistic level. In addition, a perfectionist’s sense of self-worth is overly determined by his achievement of those standards. The combination of unreasonable standards, a rigid commitment to those standards and an unhealthy attachment to the achievement of those standards can pave the way for intense self-criticism, lowered self-esteem, social isolation, stress, inability to concentrate and many other sources of psychological and emotional distress.

We tend to associate perfectionism with an excessive concern with work quality, but there are many other areas of life in which perfectionism can be a problem. For example, a perfectionist may be overly concerned with meeting what they perceive to be the social expectations of others, or may be overly demanding in their relationships with others. In either case, the perfectionist may be setting themselves up for social failure. In the first case, they may be perpetually dissatisfied with their ability to fit in socially, and in the second case they may not be able to develop close relationships because no one ever meets their high standards.

Perfectionism is maintained by a number of common unhelpful thinking styles, sometimes referred to as cognitive biases or cognitive distortions. These include dichotomous (black or white) thinking (“if I do not get an ‘A’ I will have failed”), selective thinking (“even though I have gotten an ‘A’ on every other assignment, my ‘B’ on this assignment makes me a failure”), “should” thinking (“I should have studied harder”), and catastrophization (“if I do not get an ‘A’ in this course then I won’t get a job”).   

Perfectionism is not a recognized mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. However, perfectionism is often associated with each of those disorders. In other words, if you have perfectionist personality traits, you may be more likely to develop any of those conditions.  So, if you recognize perfectionistic traits in yourself, what can you do?

First, pay attention to your thinking and try to notice perfectionistic thoughts as they arise. Ask yourself whether you are engaging in one of those unhelpful thinking styles. If so, challenge the validity of that thinking. For example, if you got an unsatisfactory grade but are still doing well overall, try not to focus excessively on the bad grade. Always look at the big picture. Second, try to relax your standards and make sure they are realistic. Are they really serving you? Finally, broaden the basis for your self-evaluation. If you are a normal human, then you have strengths and weaknesses. Celebrate your strengths and take a balanced view of yourself. Chances are that others view you more positively than you view yourself.


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