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Perfectionism: Measuring up QUEST

My work is never good enough.
I get so anxious about my work, I put off starting it.
If I make a mistake, I feel like I have failed.
I often fall behind with my work because I get caught up focusing on small details.
If I can’t do well at something, there is no point in even trying.
Myths about Perfectionism

Myth: Perfectionists are more successful than non-perfectionists.

Reality: Although some perfectionists are remarkably successful, this is often in spite of, rather than because of, their compulsive striving. Often Perfectionism leads to procrastination and avoidance, which can hinder success, or success comes at the cost of other aspects of a person's life such as their health or relationships. Perfectionism increases vulnerability to a range of mental health issues, including Depression and Social Anxiety, which can also impair performance.

Myth: Perfectionists get things done, and they do things right.

Reality: Perfectionists often have problems with procrastination, missed deadlines, and low productivity, due to their tendency to see things in an ‘all-or-nothing’ way. For example, viewing events and experiences as either good or bad, perfect or a failure, with nothing in between. This can lead the perfectionist to become easily overwhelmed and procrastinate, or decide to submit an assessment weeks late (or not at all) rather than submit some work at the deadline with less than perfect sentences.

What is perfectionism?

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism has three main components:

  1. The tendency to set standards that are so high they either cannot be met, are only met with great difficulty or cost, or standards which are inflexible (do not take into account various factors that influence performance).
  2. Measuring your self-worth (how you feel about yourself) based on your ability to achieve these standards.
  3. Experiencing negative consequences of setting demanding standards (e.g., chronic anxiety, reduced social contact, procrastination, problems sleeping, poor health), yet continuing to strive for them despite the cost.

Perfectionism tends to be driven by a fear of making mistakes, and the belief that mistakes might make you less successful, less likeable, less worthy, or that mistakes will lead to some unspecified catastrophic outcome.

Some people may strive to be perfect in only one part of their life, such as study, work, relationships, or appearance. Others may strive to be perfect in many or all areas of their life.

Perfectionism can typically involve two types of behaviours:

  • Over compensation – for example, getting caught up with small details of a task, writing and re-writing work, being unable to delegate tasks to other people, or feeling like you should spend all available time on study. This can result in not being able to keep up with workload and feeling stressed and exhausted.
  • Avoidance – for example, missing deadlines, not submitting work, giving up too soon, not trying things you might not be good at, getting distracted, or procrastination. It can also result in failing or withdrawing from courses.
Reflect: Am I a Perfectionist?

Let's find out if perfectionism is an issue for you. Here are a few statements for you to consider:

Excerpt from "Perfectionism in Perspective, Module 1", used with permission from Centre for Clinical Interventions

If you have answered most of the above questions with True or Somewhat True, then perfectionism might be something you want to work on. If you haven't answered True or Somewhat True, you may still want to stay with us as you might learn some skills that could be useful in the future.

Video: "The Perfectionism Trap" by School of Life (3.48 min)

Perfectionism Vs Healthy Striving

Perfectionism is...

  • Setting standards beyond reach and not adjusting to changes in circumstances
  • Motivation comes from fear of failure or need for approval from others
  • Never being satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Feeling depressed when faced with failure or disappointment
  • Being preoccupied with fear of failure and disapproval
  • Seeing mistakes as evidence that you are unworthy or not enough as a person
  • Becoming overly defensive when criticised

Healthy Striving is...

  • Setting standards that are flexible and reasonable
  • Motivation comes from passion or interest in the task
  • Enjoying the process of a task, as well as outcome
  • Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment
  • Being able to see that failure and disapproval, while disappointing, is a normal part of life
  • Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Staying open and reflective to constructive criticism
The vicious cycle of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can become a vicious cycle which gets reinforced regardless of whether we meet our standards or not...

Check out this factsheet for more information on what maintains Perfectionism.

Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism

1. Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect or holding yourself to high standards.

Writing out your own list of the costs and benefits may help you to discover what it is that you gain and lose because of the perfectionism, and how ready you are to make some changes.

2. Adjust your definition of success.

You might like to consider the following questions to help you to adjust your rules or assumptions about success or failure:

  • What is the unhelpful rule or assumption I would like to adjust? (e.g., “I must not fail.” “I can’t have others think poorly of me.” “I must always get a HD”)
  • Where did I learn this rules or assumption? Where did it come from?
  • In what ways is this rule or assumption unreasonable? Unrealistic? Unfair? Unhelpful?
  • What are the negative consequences of having this rule or assumption?
  • What is an alternative more helpful (i.e., balanced, flexible, realistic) rule or assumption?
  • How would I behave differently on a daily basis, if I believed this helpful alternative?
  • Set some small goals to change your behaviour in line with the helpful alternative, even if your old unhelpful rules or assumptions still feel true. Small but repeated changes in behaviour can lead to a gradual change in your beliefs.

3. Challenge Perfectionistic Thinking

Learn to identify and actively challenge patterns of thinking which maintain Perfectionism. For example:

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking – seeing only one extreme or the other. E.g, “If I make a mistake I am a complete failure.”
  • Mental Filter – focusing on one aspect of a situation and ignoring the rest. E.g., focusing on the few errors on a report and ignoring the positive feedback on the rest of the report.
  • ‘Shoulding’– Frequently saying “I should…” can put unreasonable pressure on yourself and others and often reduces our mood and motivation. E.g. “I should have got more done today”. Instead, try to rephrase this as “I could…” e.g., “Tomorrow I could use an app to block social media so I get less distracted”.
  • Check out this factsheet for more on Perfectionistic Thinking

4. Starting with “good enough”

Often avoidance and procrastination come from anxiety about aiming to write a perfect first draft. Take some pressure off by allowing yourself to write a completed “rough first draft” which is at the "Good Enough" level (see diagram below). Once you have answered all the questions, and if there is still time left before the deadline, you can go back and edit to improve the work. Remember, it is easier to rework a rough first draft than to stare at a blank page. Additionally, if you run out of time then you have something that is complete that you can submit.

5. Learn to let go of self-criticism and develop self-compassion.

Harsh self-criticism is often an unhelpful and misguided attempt to improve our performance. It can activate the ‘threat’ pathway in our brain, leading to anxiety, low mood and unhelpful coping strategies such as avoidance. To learn how to hold yourself accountable with kindness, check out the free workbook from Centre for Clinical Interventions on “Building Self Compassion”.

6. Seek support

The beliefs which underlie perfectionism can be deeply ingrained and difficult to shift. If you have tried a few strategies, but find that perfectionism is still impacting on your life, why not see one of the University's counsellors for a free and confidential appointment to help you overcome the obstacles.

Video: TEDx talk by Martin Antony - "When Perfect Isn't Good Enough" (18.51 min)

Find Out More

Workshops

The University's Counselling and Psychological Service runs regular workshops on Overcoming Perfectionism, as well as other topics such as Beating Procrastination and Exam Anxiety. Check out the website for the current workshop timetable

Other Students Say

Online Resources

Books

  • “When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism” by M. Antony and R. Swinson
  • “Never Good Enough: How to use Perfectionism to your advantage without letting it ruin your life” by M. Adderholdt-Elliott, M. Eliott & J. Goldberg
  • “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are” by Brene Brown

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UPDATED MAY 2021

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Created with images by geralt - "system web network" • Kazi Mizan - "Man, Male Portrait" • christian ferrer - "untitled image" • Ben White - "Lost in thoughts" • Noah Windler - "At the Messenplatz in Basel, Switzerland" • Christopher Sardegna - "untitled image" • jarmoluk - "strategy chess board game" • MasimbaTinasheMadondo - "people emotion dramatic" • ElisaRiva - "head man person" • Fotorech - "man thoughtful sad" • Pexels - "adult annoyed blur burnout concentration facial expression" • Matthew LeJune - "untitled image" • Martin Adams - "Blood Moon (edited for style)" • TeroVesalainen - "idea innovation imagination" • Garrett Sears - "untitled image" • Dimhou - "hot young people summer" • geralt - "volunteers hands tree"