Is perfection your enemy?

Mar 24, 2019

We’ve all heard it, perfection is the enemy of good but do you know perfectionism is the enemy of good health? Are you addicted to perfection, a perfectionist? Does your need for perfection bring you to a standstill or drive you into a frenzy? It’s time to acknowledge it, to take action to overcome your addiction.

The consequences of this addiction are serious, affecting our relationships, our work and our mental health. Perfectionism is having rigid rules, being your own biggest critic and putting these rules and judgements on co-workers, family and friends. The rules are symptomatic of avoidance and control and can bring out the monster control freak. It is in fact a behavioural response to environmental factors, not just a consequence of our personality, or something we can’t overcome. Once we said people were procrastinators, were obsessed by work or their personal appearance, now we are looking deeper and seeing the drivers and harmful effects of perfectionism. It’s an addiction.

Perfectionism is becoming more common as everything we do is amplified through social media, and unreal standards seem to be the norm. Our high performing athletes are suffering from it. Elite athletes are driven by external performance expectations that are monitored by teams of people, their every move is scrutinised on and off the field, drug use and behavioural issues that are reported in the media are symptomatic of it. There are other drivers and causes of these issues, but it is important we understand perfectionism and don’t overlook the impact it is having.

The AFL has recently gone public with the need to address mental health problems in the sport. It is part of the growing awareness of the need to be on the front foot about mental health issues in all walks of life. Our sportswomen and men have been our heroes and we have perhaps not wanted to know about the toll on their mental health and wellbeing.  For a long time problems with addiction to drugs, particularly performance enhancing drugs has been seen as something at the edges of the sport, yet this group is very subject to public and professional scrutiny and at risk of internalising expectations of great performance with the potential consequence of negative perfectionism. One impact of the addictive nature of perfectionism can be crossing the line with drugs and using them to continually be the best and to get more out of each performance.  Irrespective of labels such as addictive personality, it is most useful to recognise the early stages and to put in place strategies to avoid escalation of negative perfectionism.

For us non elite athletes the process is similar, we internalise expectations from our parents that we fell short of, or teachers, the gym, from social media, from habits of self criticism. The pattern becomes a habit and hey presto, we become a perfectionist with negative behaviours, negative self talk and negative consequences. We mistakenly believe we are driving ourselves to be better when we are actually doing ourselves harm.

Researchers have identified a range of mental health disorders and conditions that are associated with perfectionism, including eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, chronic fatigue, burnout, social anxiety and panic disorder, among others. The impact on relationships is devastating. It is associated with addiction. It is timely for the AFL to focus on mental health and the relationship with public scrutiny and high level performance. Equally it is also time we focussed on perfectionism and the potential for negative perfectionism to affect any of us.

Perfectionism has two modes:

  • Negative perfectionism which is characterised by avoidance – avoiding failure, imperfection, mediocrity and getting away from an undesirable view of oneself. This shows up as behaviours like
  • Setting unrealistic standards, moving standards if they are achieved because if we achieve them they can’t have been realistic given the fact that we are not ‘worthy’, therefore our goal was unworthy.
  • Avoiding failure by not starting (procrastination, total avoidance).
  • Checking and rechecking work, putting in excessive effort without gaining any enjoyment.
  • Continuous self criticism.
  • Positive perfectionism is characterised by pursuit behaviour, pursuing success or excellence, being motivated to get closer to an ideal self. Positive perfectionism works well when it results in behaviours where:
  • We set high stretch targets that are achievable.
  • We are motivated by accomplishment and work hard with joy.
  • We gain rewards both internal, such positive self appreciation, and external, such as acknowledgement and reinforcement from others.
  • Our behaviour is under the control of things we want to move towards, it is a positive image, and it is characterised by choice, flexibility and freedom.

How can we recognise perfectionism in ourselves and its impact on our relationships and ability to live well?

  • First listen to your own thoughts and observe the impact you have on others – do you recognise any of the characteristics? Practice being an observer and you will become better at not second guessing yourself.
  • Set a change goal – but don’t be perfectionistic about setting the goals. Start small, select one thing that would be a good, achievable challenge and has some risk of failure, select something you want for yourself.
  • Reinforce your self-awareness that this challenge isn’t the definition of you – it is you taking charge of your behaviour, you can succeed or fail, either way the doing of it will bring you pleasure.
  • Talk to yourself positively, give yourself pats on the back, talk to others about your goal, journal your progress and when you get to a sensible stopping point, select another small goal.
  • Flow your self reward process over to other things and start to recognise unrealistic goals for what they are.

Depending on the impact your perfectionism is having on your life you should talk to a professional such as your EAP provider, or a counsellor. If you know you are a perfectionist and don’t know the impact it is having on your life then do talk to a professional to work this through.

Perfectionism is a behaviour; it can be turned into a positive force in our lives.

Thank you to Jennifer Kemp, Clinical Psychologist and her presentation Perfectionism from a contextual perspective: Supporting healthy striving and flexible responding., at 2019 ANZACBS conference.

If you want additional support, ACT Curious can connect you to a behavioral therapist that meets your needs. You can get started today if ACT Curious EAP is offered by your employer.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Michelle Trudgen Director, ACT Curious.

copyright: 29 March 2019

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