Are You a Perfectionist and Making Yourself Miserable?

stress of perfectionist

Many people pride themselves on setting high standards and accepting only the best.  While this can lead to great perseverance and success, it can also become a great burden.  Often these standards become unrealistic or unattainable.  This hard-driving part of you is intolerant of mistakes or setbacks. This is when Perfectionism actually becomes a barrier to success and happiness.

The Perfectionist voice in your head is one type of self-talk.  Self-talk is what we say to ourselves in response to a situation that ends up determining our moods and reactions.  We each tend to have themes or personalities in our self-talk.  One person might respond to situations with positive self-talk while another has perpetually negative self-talk.

Take for example this common situation.  Imagine stirring up your morning coffee while your bread is in the toaster.  You get distracted by a phone call and suddenly notice the smell of smoke.  Burnt toast!

–          Person 1 might think, “I’m such an idiot! Why do I mess up everything? I’m such a failure.”

–          Person 2 might think, “Oops!  That’s a shame. Guess I’ll have cereal instead.”

Based on the immediate self-talk each person has in this scenario will obviously result in very different feelings.  Person 1 likely enters the day feeling depressed, angry, frustrated.  Person 2 might feel a bit frustrated at first but quickly moves forward with positive feelings.

Self-talk is usually so automatic and subtle that you don’t even notice it or the effect it has on your moods and feelings.  Such thoughts often come in the form of a short word or image that is connected to a whole serious of thoughts, memories, or associations.  Person 1 above sees the burnt toast and is flooded with the history of feeling like a failure.  These types of negative self-talk is often irrational and unhelpful.

When you have a theme of Perfectionist self-talk you get the message that your efforts are never good enough, that you should be working harder, you should always have everything under control, you should always be pleasing to others, you should never struggle.  The Perfectionist voice is always trying to convince you that your self-worth is dependent on externals such as vocational achievement, money and status, acceptance by others, or always making people happy.  The Perfectionist does not experience inherent self-worth.

Perfectionist self-talk also tends to lead to stress and burnout.  You get the message to ignore your body’s needs and push through pain or exhaustion in pursuit of your goals.  This may lead to injury or chronic health problems.

The key to countering these unhealthy Perfectionist self-talk patterns is to first slow down and notice when they arise.  If you find yourself feeling angry, frustrated, defeated, you might think back to the thoughts that preceded these feelings.  Once you identify Perfectionist self-talk, ask yourself the following questions to counter these thoughts.

Using the above example of Person 1 who sees burnt toast and thinks “I’m such a failure.”

–          Is this always true?

o   Well, no. I don’t usually burn my toast.  And burning toast doesn’t exactly mean I’m a total failure.

–          What evidence supports this thought?

o   Sometimes I do feel like I’m not good enough and seeing my mistake is a reminder of that.

–          Is there evidence to the contrary?

o   I’m generally very successful in other ways in my life, including my ability to prepare meals correctly most days.

–          Am I looking at the whole picture?

o   No. One burnt toast does not equate to viewing myself as a failure.  In fact, my coffee tastes great.

–          Would I say this to someone I love?

o   No. I would never call someone I love a failure. 

When you make a practice of noticing your negative self-talk and countering these unhealthy thoughts with more realistic, compassionate thoughts, you’ll break the pattern.  You’ll begin to respond to situations from a healthier more positive emotional place.  And you’ll tolerate imperfections in yourself and others with greater acceptance.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Linden Blog based on excerpt from The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Bourne. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Linden BP call 440/250-9880