The Pitfalls of Perfectionism

The concept of perfectionism is something we are all familiar with. Just take a moment to consider the messages we receive from advertisements and social media and it’s easy to see the perfectionist culture we live in today. The pressure to have the perfect job, the perfect marriage, the perfect family, the perfect body, or the perfect child is immense and it can definitely become daunting. But the reality is there is no such thing as “perfect” and setting an expectation for our self or others, that has a foundation in perfectionistic thinking, can lead to a number of problems such as anxiety, depression, and relational issues.

In this post, I hope to highlight a few of the more significant elements of this trait, including some of the perfection pitfalls that are easy to fall into, as well as suggestions to avoid perfectionistic thinking and how best to effectively navigate today’s perfectionistic culture.

According to Psychology Today “perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks”. Perfectionism can affect anyone at any age and at any time during their life. Generally speaking there are three types of perfectionism:

• self-imposing perfectionism, which is the tendency to impose unrealistic expectations on one’s self
• other-oriented perfectionism, which is the tendency to impose unrealistic expectations on others
• socially prescribed perfectionism, which is the tendency to perceive unrealistic expectations of perfection from others.

You might be wondering what perfectionism looks like in your life. Here are some of the more common pitfalls of perfectionism that many of us experience:

• Utilizing perfectionistic language. When we use words such as “should”, “expect”, “ought”, “must”, “always”, and “never” we are essentially placing unrealistic demands on ourselves and others and utilizing a “black and white” philosophy that creates opportunity for failure, thus contributing to feelings of frustration and distress. Similarly, alarmist self-talk, which often includes words such as “awful”, “terrible”, and “can’t stand”, can contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.

• Utilizing comparison. If you scroll through social media regularly, you know that it is almost impossible not to make comparisons between your life and circumstances and the “perfect” snap shots that others have posted. This kind of constant comparison aids in making us feel “less than” and promotes criticism of self and others, which then contributes to feelings of helplessness. Additionally, criticism hinders personal growth and development and forces us and others into narrow slots of behavior with little room for improvising, flexibility, and honoring differences.

• Defining our worth on what we can’t directly control. Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors are an attempt to gain security and worth and to avoid disappointment and feelings of despair, discomfort, and worthlessness. But it is important to remember that success does not occur just because someone perceived us in a positive light. Success is the result of hard work: doing, learning, making mistakes and then learning from those mistakes.

In his book, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression, William J. Knaus points out that pushing our self or others by utilizing perfectionistic demands can sometimes be effective, however it comes with great cost. As mentioned, high stress-levels, anxiety, depression, and relational issues, are often the result. Giving yourself, and others, permission to make mistakes, as well as setting realistic expectations are ways you can effectively counteract the pitfalls of perfectionistic thinking.

For example, Knaus suggests learning to utilize a preferential philosophy rather than a demanding philosophy. This means instead of telling yourself or others that you expect a certain result, try thinking of your expectations as preferences. This requires utilizing more objectivity than emotion, which can often be a challenge. But when we think of a desired result as a preference, we instantly allow for an imperfect result which promotes a much healthier and realistic outlook. Preferential thinking utilizes words such as, “desire”, “want”, “hope to”, “would like”, and “would prefer”.

And remember, when self-development is the goal, a demanding approach can actually distract you from reaching your true potential. A healthy process of self-development and success involves initiative and innovation and the ability to be flexible with your own hopes for success. It also involves an ability to find the joy in the process, rather than the result, as well as a willingness to define our worth and the worth of others, utilizing reasonable standards, and accepting that learning and growth come from both success and failure.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing hardship due to perfectionistic thinking, including feelings of anxiety, depression, or relational concerns, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.


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