“You treat perfectionism? What does that even mean?”

By Taylor Newendorp, LCPC

I received this question a few years ago when I started advertising the fact that I address the issue of perfectionism in my clinical practice. While it may still be a widely-held belief that striving for perfection is a positive thing, it can, in fact, become an incredibly detrimental problem in someone’s life. The problem with perfectionism is that, to the perfectionist, no matter how well he or she does at something or how much success that person achieves in life, it still never feels good enough. Therefore this ongoing need to always do better ultimately leads to feeling discontent and frustrated, and the very effort to be the best actually hurts the person’s sense of self-esteem and confidence.

Perfectionists often experience high levels of anxiety and stress over the possibility of not getting everything right and come to believe that they cannot tolerate making mistakes. Sometimes perfectionists project their own fears of getting things wrong on to others, and this can cause conflict in both their personal and professional relationships especially if the perfectionist conveys a sense of intolerance towards others not doing things the way he or she thinks it should be done. People who are perfectionistic tend to burn themselves out in professional and academic settings, sacrificing basic needs such as sleep and food to expend all of their energy on making the project or assignment on hand perfect. In the professional world, perfectionists may have a hard time delegating tasks to others because they do not trust that other people will do it well enough, and thus they take on multiple unnecessary responsibilities which cause them more stress and may be perceived as micro-managers.
Unfortunately, the concept of perfectionism often goes hand in hand with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Eating Disorders, and Anxiety Disorders. Thus, in order to treat these conditions, I had to learn how to treat perfectionism. Many people with OCD struggle with performing compulsive acts until they get a feeling that it is just right, and it is vital to address and gradually change their rigidity in thinking and behaving in order for them to learn how to overcome the OCD. In essence, they have to learn how to tolerate things being or feeling less than perfect in order to gain freedom from OCD. A core component of eating disorders such as Anorexia and Bulimia is an excessive concern with body image, and many destructive eating disordered behaviors are driven by the individual’s belief that he or she must have the perfect body. In addition, I have worked with countless people who believe that they believe they must be perfect in every single role they have in their lives the perfect student, the perfect employee, the perfect boss, the perfect son, the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect friend the list goes on and on. Just think about the amount of pressure that would put on you all the time!
In short, most perfectionists I have worked with are exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. For the most part, despite how it may appear to the outside world, they are incredibly unhappy with themselves. I have literally heard people utter the words, If Im not perfect, then Im a failure. Think about how limiting it is to have those be your only two options in life. And since, in reality, there is no such thing as perfect, someone who thinks that way is inevitably setting themselves up to feel like a failure and that is a very harsh label to put on yourself.
The good news is that there are effective modes of treatment for perfectionism. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works to help people learn how to challenge and change unproductive thinking patterns, and people can even try what are known as behavioral experiments such as intentionally making mistakes in order to increase their tolerance of stress and anxiety. The perfectionists I have worked with are highly intelligent, creative, and nice people, and learning how to manage their perfectionism usually allows these other qualities to become even more pronounced. The main thing I remind my clients of when working on something like this is that the goal is progress, not perfection!