A Coaching Power Tool created by Christine Rusnak
(Life and Wellness Coaching, UNITED STATES)
When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target
Jane prides herself on the fact that she religiously wakes up at 5 o’clock am every single morning before work to complete her six- to ten-mile run through the neighborhood. Even during the winter, when a snow blizzard hit the city, forcing all schools and most businesses to stay closed for the day, Jane did not let it stop her from her run. Her commitment to her morning routine provided a reward for Jane, as she started each day with an emotional high and overwhelming feeling of being so productive! In today’s society, in which there is increasing uncertainty, increased demands in life, and more competition, many people feel an increasing need to “be the best” and prevail- physically, intellectually, emotionally, and on the job- in order to stay afloat and have a sense of purpose. But, at what point does being vigorously disciplined turn into a strong need to be “perfect?”
It is the constant need for absolute “perfection” that can cause disruption, frustration, and pain to your life. Perfection is defined as the belief that one and/or the environment must be “perfect” and without flaw. Psychiatrist David Burns was cited in Psychology Today (1980) as defining perfectionism as “people whose standards are high beyond reach or reason, and strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment.” There is a strong desire and need to be the best, and that whatever is attempted must be done to letter perfection with no deviations, slip-ups, errors, or inconsistencies. There can be situations in which one’s perfectionistic tendencies have many productive and positive aspects. It can create a driving energy that motivates a person to achieve outstanding achievements with clear and concise attention to detail. In its healthy state, perfectionism can spark motivation, which reduces levels of procrastination, and help maintain one’s levels of commitment and persistence with their decisions and actions. Yet, perfectionism more commonly spins out of control and can develop into an unhealthy state in which the perfectionist develops a level of consciousness and irrational belief that many aspects of their life must be “a certain way” or else a negative consequence will follow.
Experts say people are often “created” to be perfectionists from a very early age, and characteristics can be observed as early as age four. Studies have shown that frequently these children are being raised by one or both parents whom also demonstrate strong perfectionistic tendencies, creating a “modeling effect” in which the children copy or take on the same traits. In interviews with perfectionists, they often report that their parents were overly critical and extremely strict. In today’s world, more and more pressure is being placed on children to perform with high expectations on their performance, which is creating an up rise in perfectionism.
What does “being perfect” look like?
Analysis of the thinking, beliefs, and behaviors of people demonstrating perfectionism reveals many commonalities. Perfectionists often demonstrate a strong trait of organization with an over-emphasis on order. They set high personal standards, in which they often set lofty goals that are frequently unattainable with very little learning curve. There is a rigid adherence to these high standards in almost all conditions and situations in their life. They become overly concerned over mistakes, as they feel that mistakes equal failure, which may lead to rejection and/or a loss of respect from others. The excessive worrying over possible mistakes leads to doubt of their own abilities, as they constantly feel unsure if they are capable of completing a task at hand. Even if the perfectionist starts a goal or task, they question whether they will be able to continue in an adequate way or maintain the level of achievement.
What beliefs are behind “being perfect”?
A perfectionist often carries with them many self-defeating and irrational beliefs. They are also faced with an ongoing stream of negative emotions since rather than focus on positive attributes, they direct all of their focus on avoiding the negative attributes. They believe that if they are going to put forth their energy into a task, then it must be performed with high standards in mind and without error. There is no sense in doing something unless it can be done perfectly, at whatever cost. They hold the belief that it is what you achieve, rather than who you are, that makes one important. Unless a high level of success is achieved, they have very little value in life. If a roadblock or obstacle is encountered, or a mistake is made, a perfectionist will often believe that their efforts must have not been “good enough.” They, therefore, completely give up and “throw in the towel.” A perfectionist also holds the strong belief that s/he is being constantly judged by others based on their own performance, achievements, and actions. Therefore, this often leads the perfectionist to hide their goals or actions from others, so that if they should make a mistake, they won’t be considered a “failure” by others.
What are the negative consequences of ”being perfect”?
There are many negative consequences that can accumulate due to perfectionistic thinking, which create many difficulties in one’s life. What are some of the negative consequences?
A perfectionist never really feels “good enough” and can experience feelings of failure paired with low self-confidence. They may make negative comments about their performance, such as “I am always so terrible at this,” or even about their own self-worth, such as “I am such a loser!”
Lack of motivation
A perfectionist can become so fearful of failure that they find it difficult to get started with a task in the first place. Their belief that their performance may not be perfect, or if an action cannot be perfectly achieved, causes a lack of motivation. They will not start a task unless they are positive they will get it “right.” They often resist or drag their feet in making changes in their lives, and many perfectionists will refuse to make changes at all. The fear of failure can be so extreme for some that they become immobilized, and their energy, creativity, and efforts come to a complete halt.
A perfectionist often needs to have things “just so” in their life, with the presentation that everything around them and everything they are involved with are perfect. This need often leads to a lack of flexibility, being labeled as “finicky,” and extreme rigidity. They are often resistant to acting spontaneously and grow uncomfortable when actions or events deviate away from their set schedule. In a more extreme form, the perfectionist may begin to show compulsive behaviors and obsessive rituals.