Changing Perfectionistic Beliefts and Behaviors
Though hard to define, perfectionism has been identified by Forbes, Gardiner, and Kearns as
setting high standards and critical self-evaluation (158).
This definition is helpful in a coaching context, as it offers several different possible areas for change. First, coaches may help clients to set lower, more realistic goals and standards. This means the standards become easier to reach, and provide more frequent opportunities for celebration and recognition of accomplishments. Second, coaches may help clients to recognize opportunities for celebration where perfectionistic beliefs would otherwise override positive actions with negative beliefs. Finally, coaches can help clients to self-evaluate in more positive ways, whether during sessions between coach and client or in exercises that the client completes in his or her own time.
According to Forbes, Gardiner, and Kearns, there are similarities and crossovers between perfectionistic and self-handicapping behaviors. Self-handicapping encompasses a wide range of behaviors. However, these behaviors are the ways in which limiting beliefs are experienced behaviorally. Forbes, Gardiner, and Kearns give several examples of possible self-handicapping behaviors that people may utilize, including procrastination, spreading oneself too thin through excessive commitments, choosing unattainable or difficult goals, and even medical symptoms like addiction or physical sickness.
Forbes, Gardiner, and Kearns found many similarities between perfectionistic and self-handicapping behaviors, including
concern about reaching some standard, an inordinate concern about what others will think if the standard is not met, and a self-image that depends on external achievements and recognition (158).
One of the ways in which coaching can actively challenge perfectionism is by reducing expectations. Coaches may help clients to set realistic goals. When they reach or exceed these realistic, or even low, goals, they experience the short-term satisfaction of achievement. Whereas a client might have responded negatively week after week if unsuccessfully working toward lofty goals, coaching presents the opportunity to celebrate small, incremental successes, providing a boost of self-confidence based on achievement.
While clients who are highly perfectionistic might challenge this technique and insist upon setting loftier goals, it is valuable for coaches to push clients to lower their goals. Contrary to clients’ worry that they might not achieve anything at all if they don’t set very high goals, it is likely that they will actually make more progress than if they were faced with an enormous goal. Breaking large goals down into very small pieces results in less intimidation to start (since the task is so obviously do-able). This results in a reduction of procrastination behaviors.
Identifying and Challenging Critical Self-Talk
Another factor that contributes to poor self-esteem is negative self-talk. This is the internal monologue that all people have to some extent. In the case of people with low self-esteem, this internal monologue is especially critical, unrelenting, and believable. As noted in The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook,
Self-talk is usually so automatic and subtle that you don’t notice it or the effect it has on your moods and feelings. You react without noticing what you told yourself right before you reacted (163).
This does not mean that there is no hope for people with largely negative self-talk. Rather, through self-work such as coaching and the use of cognitive-behavioral exercises, it is possible to recognize the negative statements made, challenge them, and learn to dismiss those that are unhelpful. The first step is to recognize the negative self-talk, what McKay and Fanning call “the critic.”
McKay and Fanning outline some of the most recognizable tactics of the critic, and these allow a coachee to identify self-talk that is critical. The critic tends to:
- run a negative stream of comments that leads to the things one fears occurring,
- use internal rules (such as a requirement for perfection) to make one feel badly,
- stop someone from taking risks that could result in failure or rejection,
- predict bad outcomes before they happen, and
- cause you to feel guilt (to “atone” for supposed wrongdoings).
The critic has other modes of operating, as well, but these are the most popular and easily recognizable. When a client is just starting to do the work of separating the voice of the critic from his or her more supportive internal voice, it may be helpful for the coach to stop the client during sessions to have the client ascertain whether certain statements originate from the critic. Another helpful exercise would be to assign the client homework to become aware of when the critic tends to arise, what it says, and how insistent it is depending on the situation.
After the client has begun to identify the critic and what it says, McKay and Fanning recommend talking back to the critic. According to these authors,
The most effective way to deal with the [critic] is to counter it with positive, supportive statements (168).
Each client needs to determine his or her individual way of quieting the critic’s voice, but a few possibilities are these:
The client could tell the critic (either by writing it down, saying the words aloud, or in his or her head) that she refuses to continue to act on the critic’s instructions.
The clients could tell the critic that she knows it is trying to protect her, but that it is not being effective, and that she is developing more effective methods of self-protection.
The client could “reason” with the critic, and work to find a solution that assures the critic that the client will stay safe, while allowing the client to act confidently.