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Winifred Lender: Are You a Perfectionist?

We all have times we hope will be perfect. For example, we want a presentation to a potential client to be perfect, we plan for a dinner that we want to be perfect or we hope that our child will have a perfect first day at school.  

The desire to have things be perfect is motivating and can yield a positive outcome. This drive encourages us to prepare, motivates us and supports us in focusing on a goal.  

These periodic wishes to have things be perfect are positive as long as we set achievable goals and don’t default to needing everything to always be perfect.

When your desire to have things perfect changes from a passing wish to a daily need, it can be detrimental, and if you become consumed with a situation that did not turn out to be perfect and replay the situation over and over again, this drive is counterproductive.

When you continually set expectations for a perfect outcome and are not able to easily recover when the expectations are not met, you may suffer from “perfectionism”.

Perfectionists share several common characteristics.  

First, they establish unachievable high standards. Instead of setting a goal of doing well on a math test, they will establish the goal of getting 100 percent.

Likewise, they will expect to run every day for 60 minutes regardless of their health, other commitments or weather. A perfectionist would consider any alteration in their goal, such as running for less time or not running for a day due to illness, a “complete and utter failure.” 

Second, perfectionists tend to see their self worth as being based on their ability to meet the excessive standards they set for themselves. Thus, they will consider themselves an “absolute failure” if they do not earn 100 percent on a test or believe that they are “completely undisciplined” if they miss one day of running in a month.

Finally, perfectionists continually experience negative consequences of establishing such excessive goals, yet do not alter their expectations.

The runner who continually gets shin splints and is very overtired due to getting up early to run will not alter her pattern, even though the negative consequences are apparent.

Likewise, the student repeatedly sets himself up for failure and disappointment by continually trying to get 100 percent and not settling for anything less.

A perfectionist’s drive to achieve a perfect outcome is actually counterproductive, leading them to feel anxious and act in ways that may derail their progress toward goals.

Even though others may point out that taking a rest day from running may be a healthy choice, the perfectionist will discount this advice and run even though it may lead to an injury or sickness.

Even when a perfectionist achieves their goal, the rewards are not typically appreciated. They may question if the goal they established was truly a challenge and will immediately begin to think about how they will achieve their next goal.

The pattern of a perfectionist, that of setting unattainable goals and failing to alter them, can lead to procrastination. Perfectionists may spend an inordinate amount of time designing goals and thinking about them, but fail to embark on them for fear of failure.

This vicious cycle of setting high goals and then procrastinating and never bringing them to completion can yield feelings of powerlessness and depression.

The first step in overcoming perfectionism is to become aware of your interactive tendencies. Often these patterns are so imbedded within us that we fail to recognize them and their negative impact on our lives.

Take some time now to look at your typical way of setting goals. Focus on answering the questions that follow below. Next ask a close friend or a relative to answer these questions pertaining to you.

If the answers show a pattern of setting excessively high goals, not changing them in the face of failure, failing to bring goals to completion or putting off getting started on goals consistently, you may have perfecitonistic tendencies. 

» Do you often feel that the goals you set for yourself are unattainable?

» Do others feel the goals you often set are too high or unreasonable?

» Do you alter your goals if you have not been able to achieve them?

» If you achieve a goal, do you take time to feel happy or start planning for a higher goal?

» If you don’t achieve a goal, do you ruminate about it for a long time?

» Do you tend to put off getting started with a goal or a project often?

» Do you feel that it is better not to attempt something if you can't do it perfectly?

» Do you hold yourself to a higher standard than you hold others to?

For perfectionists, as well as those who know perfectionists, my next column will detail means of taming perfectionistic tendencies.

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s Bookstore and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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