Imagine that you are extremely dedicated to an archery team. You spend day and night in target practice, regardless of the weather conditions and without regard for your own basic needs. You have an unlimited amount of arrows and you continue over and over again to launch the arrows in an attempt to hit the bull’s eye. Day after day, year after year, you never reach that bull’s eye. No matter how hard you train and commit your mind to it, no matter what the conditions are, you always miss what you are aiming for. Sometimes, you get very, very close and think that you just might have reached your goal, but ultimately, you never hit the mark. As a result, you feel that you have failed. In fact, failing becomes part of the way you define yourself. Fear of failing becomes a constant worry for you.
Now imagine, that one day you realize that this target that you have spent all of these hours and days and years trying to hit is so very small that you can barely even see it. Actually, when you look closely, and assess the situation you find the bull’s eye is not just small and faded, it is nonexistent. Upon realizing this, you see you have spent years and years feeling like you have failed because you were trying to hit a target that wasn’t actually there. This is perfectionism.
In this imagined scenario, perfect is the nonexistent target. A sense of failure results from believing that anything but perfect is not good enough. If you are struggling with perfectionism, or you have in the past, you probably know how exhausting this can be.
Perfectionism is an unobtainable illusion guaranteed to make you feel badly.
Under the weight of extreme perfectionism, difficulty with a specific task may be generalized. This can quickly lead to self-criticism. For example, instead of thinking, “I did not do well on that part of the exam; those must have been really difficult questions,” the perfectionist might think “I am so stupid. How could I have missed both of the multiple choice questions?! I am terrible at math.”
Constantly striving for perfect results can lead to feelings of tension and stress. It can also trigger an avoidance of appropriate challenges and risks. For example, you might find it difficult to connect with new people in social relationships at the risk of appearing flawed or imperfect to someone else. Or you may not apply to a great job because you haven’t mastered every single skill set listed as a prerequisite.
In general, perfectionism can cause you to miss out on opportunities to learn from mistakes and may ultimately get in the way of living a balanced, rewarding life.
Addressing perfectionism can aid in eating disorder recovery
Perfectionism is a genetic personality trait that many people are born with. Research has shown this characteristic to be a significant risk factor for the development of eating disorders. Furthermore, once someone has developed an eating disorder, perfectionism can sustain or perpetuate the illness, getting in the way of recovery efforts. For this reason, it can be important to work on perfectionism head on.
With support from a cognitive-behavioral therapist, you can start by making clear, manageable behavioral changes to test out what it would be like to attempt tasks without looking for a perfect outcome. For example, trying to complete tasks “good enough.” It’s usually helpful to start off with very small goals and work your way up to more situations that might be more difficult. Consider these two examples below:
Example 1: If you identify yourself as a “neat freak,” try setting a timer to limit cleaning time to smaller intervals or set a guideline that you will vacuum only 50% of the time that you typically do. Experiment with this and see what the advantages and disadvantages are of approaching this task in a new way. Learn from this experience and make changes accordingly.
Example 2: If you are someone who needs to complete every item on your to-do list before leaving the office (at the expense of family, friends or self), see what happens if you have a couple of items left to work on the next day. Test out how this might affect you. Perhaps you were able to get home on time and enjoy more time with your family or you were able to drive home while it was still light out and enjoy the scenery. See if leaving those items for the next day made much of a difference as you may have approached them more efficiently with a good night’s sleep. Test out if sometimes your perfectionism causes you to put in more effort that will only bring very marginal gains. If so, figure out when is the time to stop and focus on something more profitable.
Starting to make changes on your own is a great first step toward decreasing the amount of influence that perfectionism has in your life. You might also want to consider engaging in a cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) group or individual therapy to learn how to change the way in which you interact with your perfectionism.
Committing to decrease your need to be, or appear, perfect will help you to take more and more breaks from target practice and actually enjoy being on the archery team.
Do you want to learn more about perfectionism?
We recommend the book, When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, written by Drs. Martin Antony and Richard Swinson.
If you are a treatment provider and would like to learn more about cognitive and behavioral treatments for perfectionism, join us on April 9, 2016 at The Center for Eating Disorders’ Annual Professional Symposium where Dr. Antony will be presenting on The Nature & Treatment of Perfectionism.
Online registration and event details are available at www.eatingdisorder.org/events.
You can also download the program brochure (pdf) here.
Laura Sproch, PhD
Research Coordinator and Outpatient Therapist at The Center for Eating Disorders
Photo Credit: Freedigitalphotos.net / kongsky