Sarah desperately wants to start an exercise program and she believes that in order for a program to be effective and show results, one must engage in it at least five days a week. She is able to follow this routine for a few weeks but then is unable to keep up with it due to work and family demands. As a result, she finds herself quitting the exercise program all together and then getting frustrated that she can’t seem to find an exercise program to fit into her life.
Jenny expresses constant frustration in regards to her family, and especially her husband. She shares that although they help her around the house, they seem to do everything in a “sloppy and haphazard way.” As a result, she finds herself either re-doing all of the tasks or jumps in to do the task herself. Her relationship with her husband has been suffering and he constantly calls Jenny “a nag.”
Brian, a smart high school senior, is significantly struggling in school this year due to the increased demand of writing research papers. Brian shares that he will spend days on end in the library to find all of the information possible on his topic. He finds it difficult to start writing, and then complete his writing, due to his uncertainty that he is explaining his topic in a clear way. Even once his rough draft is completed, Brian finds himself making changes and re-writing his composition several times. As a result, he often is forced to turn in his work late due to missing the deadline, and there have been instances in which he decides to not turn in his work at all because he is dissatisfied with the result.
If the coach makes observations that the client’s behaviors, beliefs, and/or thought process exhibit characteristics of perfectionism, the next step for the coach is to guide the client into increasing their own insight to it. The coach may consider asking the client to make a list of pros and cons of their behaviors or thinking. This process may help the client identify whether or not the behaviors or thinking are serving them in a positive or negative way. It may also open the door of allowing the client to discover whether the perfectionistic tendencies are hurting others, especially those they love.
Once the client has gained insight to their perfectionist tendencies, guiding the client to modify their attitude and thinking in order to make them more manageable and in line with their core values will be an important process. Encourage the client to write down their core values and priorities they currently hold as important, as they can refer to this when an unrealistic belief or standard is encountered during the coaching session.
During goal setting, it will be important to support the client to shift their focus in order to place more emphasis on the process of reaching a goal, rather than being hyper-focused on the result. As the client sets goals, with an emphasis on the process, they should be supported and held accountable for setting smaller, more attainable goals. The coach should pay attention to the language the client is using when discussing actions and goals. Attend to whether the client uses words such as “must,” “should” and “have to” instead of “wish,” “want” and “desire,” as this may suggest the client is feeling pressured to engage in these actions, which is stemming from the perfectionistic tendencies, rather than operating from a place of internal desire and authenticity.
Discussion of the thoughts and feelings connected to perfectionistic tendencies can be empowering. Perfectionism is often associated with negative styles of thinking, so the coach and client may need to address a shift in thinking and feeling when assessing situations or problem solving. The coach should always keep in mind that the client is often not responding to the event or situation itself. The client’s thoughts and feelings are responses to their interpretation of the event or situation. Discussion of the client’s own interpretation will be a crucial step in the process. The coach can encourage the client to look for the “good” in things. When a statement is made in which the client notes a negative aspect to an event or situation, the client can be encouraged to think of at least five good or positive aspects. Moving the client’s perspective from negativity toward a perspective of gratitude can be powerful. Additionally, shifting the client’s thinking away from “all or nothing” and “black and white” thinking into a perspective can be empowering and support your client to be more flexible in their thoughts, interpretations, beliefs, and problem solving skills. Activities, such as replacing a perfectionist thought with a more helpful perspective, looking for evidence to support an unrealistic belief, or brainstorming what someone else would do in the situation, can all be supportive means of looking at alternative ways of thinking and problem solving.
There are many other strategies and techniques that can address issues related to perfectionism. However, one valuable gift that the coach can give the client when faced with this matter is to support the client’s self-awareness and acceptance that at the end of the day, they have the ultimate choice. They need to be guided to see that they have the power and strength that gives them the choice to decide how they want to live their life. And the coach can use one simple, but powerful, question as a springboard to tap into the client’s inner strength – “So, do you want to be “ perfect,” or do you want to be MAGNIFICENT?”
- How will you identify the signs of perfectionism in your client’s behaviors and thinking?
- How can you make your client aware that they are engaging in actions due to the need for perfectionism?
- How can you support your client in gaining a sense of what they REALLY want to be doing in their life, rather than what they think they are EXPECTED to be doing?
- What are some structures you can guide the client to put into place to minimize their need to be perfect and increase their desire to be magnificent?
- What do you do if your client doesn’t want to change some of their perfectionistic tendencies? Is there a way they can be used in a more healthy manner, and somehow connected to the things they would like to do “to be magnificent?”
Antony, Martin M. & Swinson, Richard, P. (2009). When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, 2nd Ed., New Harbinger Publications, Inc., California.
Marano, Hara. (2008, March 1st). Pitfalls of Perfectionism, Psychology Today.
Scott, Elizabeth. (2007, November 8th) Overcoming Perfection, retrieved from http://stress.about.com.
Lawson, Jake. (2011, August 11th). Overcoming Perfection, retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com.