Dr. Gary G. Taylor
ERM Class – Session 5 Notes
Perils of Perfectionism
What is perfectionism and what problems can it cause?
Perfectionists set unreasonably high standards of perfection and then measure themselves and others against those standards. They not only want to be perfect, they need and demand to be—at least with respect to the things they consider most important. For a perfectionist, necessary ingredients in a healthy life such as peace of mind, self-worth, contentment, love of self, and respect for others, all depend on achieving a degree of perfection that is impossible to reach. Thinking and functioning this way can lead to a number of significant problems. Among these are:
Feeling guilty for no good reason. Guilt is a good thing when warranted; but it can be frustrating and debilitating if experienced in situations where feeling guilty is unnecessary and unhelpful.
Trouble prioritizing. Most of us realize that we can’t do everything; but how do we set priorities between various objectives if too many things are a top priority? This leads to misplaced effort, and an inability to balance one’s life properly.
All or none behavior. A perfectionist is always just one step away from total failure; which is obviously demotivating and leads to giving up on important goals prematurely. It can also lead to not even trying something that might be wonderful simply because we can't stand the learning curve involved. Or perhaps we have misread the need to be perfect at whatever it is and don't commit; when, in fact, even less than perfect involvement might be of value. Over time, too many “failures” can lead to losing faith in oneself and/or in God. When this happens, enduring to the end in faithfulness becomes extremely difficult.
Intolerance, irritability and distrust of others. For obvious reasons, these characteristics seriously limit the development of close and enduring relationships.
Trouble in family relationships. Even after due diligence in the selection process, marriage involves a leap of faith. This is very hard for perfectionists who often delay marriage because they need to know for sure that they are making the right choice; which, of course, they never will. Once married, because of a tendency to set overly high standards for their children, and then trying to force their children to conform, perfectionists are also likely to have unhealthy and sometimes even abusive relationships with their children.
An overbearing leadership style. Perfectionists tend to be dictatorial and they have a very difficult time delegating responsibility.
Perfectionists tend to confuse perfection with worthiness, which can make us overly judgmental. The truth is that we can be worthy of God’s blessings, but still need to improve.
Ongoing high levels of stress will eventually result in multiple physical health problems.
Perfectionism creates emotional pressures that result in anxiety disorders and depression. Needing to be perfect also underlies eating disorders and, of course, obsessive compulsive disorder.
Is there any good in being a perfectionist?
We would probably prefer a perfectionist as a brain surgeon. We also hope the engineer responsible for the high rise office building we work in, and/or the damn above our community, did his or her job perfectly. Ultimately, we depend on God being perfect. Our faith, allegiance and ultimate welfare depends on God always doing the right thing. He must do everything perfectly. Perhaps that is why we read in scripture things like “be ye therefore perfect” (Matthew 5:48). If we want to inherit all that the Father has (D&C 84:38), being perfect is a requirement for us as well. But as a number of prophets have pointed out, this is a long term process and totally unobtainable in this life (see among others Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending”, Ensign, Nov, 1995, 86). For us in this life, it’s important to strive to be perfect and to do our best to avoid mistakes. But it won’t work if we need to be perfect. In fact, requiring perfection of ourselves, or demanding it in others, is a good way to fall far short of our potential.
Am I a perfectionist (bad) or just someone who wants to avoid mistakes and do everything to the best of my ability (good)? Where do I draw the line?
Perfectionism is a trait that exists on a continuum. We have more or less of it at any given time in our life and problems typically exist at either extreme. Both too much and too little desire to do things perfectly can be a problem. It’s also true that a perfectionist need not be perfectionistic about everything. Most of us have this problem about some things; but usually not about virtually everything. In fact, this is why some perfectionists fail to see the problem in themselves. When confronted with the label, some will say “I’m not a perfectionist. If you don’t believe me, just look at the mess in my house, car, etc.” This also explains why some perfectionists are so very far from perfect in some things. Referring back to the all or none feature of perfectionism, if they can’t have their house perfectly clean, then they might not bother to clean it much at all. Or if they can’t do some good thing perfectly, they wait until they can. Which means the good thing will probably never get done.?
Whether or not we are a perfectionist, and where we are on a perfectionist continuum at any particular time can be difficult to determine. Following are a few ideas to help us know when we are too far toward the perfectionist side of the scale.
Fruits test. What is happening in our life? Do we have any of the symptoms of perfectionism listed above? If so, it’s likely that we are trying too hard to do things perfectly. Perfectionism is also likely in cases where we feel guilty for no particularly good reason.
Rules about when it is and is not appropriate to feel guilty.
Was it an honest and unintentional mistake? In that case, learn from the experience and do it differently next time if possible; but no need to feel guilty.
Is the problem beyond my control? Guilt is appropriate only to the extent that we control the outcome.
Is it a temple recommend issue? If the mistake/problem disqualifies me for a temple recommend, then guilt is justified. If not, learn from it, modify behavior where possible, and move on.
Is the problem something I would feel silly confessing to my Bishop, or anyone else for that matter? Anything that would seem to be a trivial or common human nature problem if confessed to a Bishop likely doesn’t warrant guilt feelings.
Am I feeling guilty because I didn’t do the best I know I’m capable of; or am I feeling guilty because I didn’t do the best I could under the circumstances? Circumstances (such as limited understanding, health, fatigue, time constraints, etc.) obviously limit our ability to do things perfectly in specific situations, and should be taken into consideration when assessing guilt.
Ideas for overcoming perfectionism.
In overcoming perfectionism, it’s first necessary to understand that doing so won’t get in the way of reaching important goals or lead to underachievement. Perfectionists tend to be good people who are committed to being successful and doing things right. They are often concerned that tempering their need to be perfect will start them on a slippery slide in the opposite direction, soon resulting in their becoming lazy, and falling short of their goals. Actually, when we cease being perfectionists, the desire to do things to the best of our ability need not change. Also, given the fact that making mistakes and underachieving are naturally not desirable, there is no need for anyone with confidence in themselves and a desire to be successful to worry about ever ending up at the other end of the scale. In short, becoming less of a perfectionist does not detract from, but actually improves our ability to reach important goals.
Assuming that someone wants to be less of a perfectionist; and understands that it is safe to do so, following are six ideas that can help:
1. Listen for “have to’s” in your thinking. Thinking in absolutes is a hallmark of perfectionism. I “have to” do this or I “can’t” do that. When we describe things in terms of no choice, feeling compelled is inevitable. So is anxiety and guilt when we are unable to do something we “have to” do and/or something that “can’t” happen ends up happening anyway. We are much better off describing everything we face as a choice; which, of course it is. I “want” to do this. I don’t “have to”.
2. Practice doing some things less than perfectly. Do some small act of service even when you feel like “it’s not worth doing unless you can do it right”. Finish a project and walk away when it has been done reasonably, even though you know it could be done better if you kept at it. Leave some important but not necessary thing undone on purpose. Fully delegate a task to someone even though you could do it much better yourself. Then fight the resulting guilt, panic, or pressure using the ADD strategy.
3. Practice the ADD strategy frequently. The steps in this process are, (A) acknowledge that you are feeling compelled to go overboard working on or worrying about a good thing; or that you are frustrated because something didn’t turn out perfectly in spite of your good effort; (B) decide not to worry about it; and (C) distract yourself by getting off the subject and on to something else in your mind. Repeat these steps over and over as long as necessary until the unease, guilt, or pressure to do something perfectly goes away. Don’t try to convince yourself that you don’t need to worry about the imperfection, just change to another subject in your head altogether.
4. Use the magic words “it doesn’t matter”. It may matter to someone. It may be a significant problem. But if we can’t realistically do anything about it, it’s important to not let it not matter to us. This applies when we can’t finish a task for reasons beyond our control (i.e. coming home early from a mission); when we run out of gas and our best effort simply isn’t good enough; or in any number of other circumstances.
5. Don’t go overboard trying not to go overboard. Some perfectionists are tempted to try to overcome their problem with the same perfectionism that they are trying to move away from. When this happens, rather than find relief, they end up with just one more thing to feel bad about. Now they feel guilty about everything that they aren’t doing perfectly; plus they feel guilty for feeling guilty about it! Give yourself a break. Feel good about the small accomplishments; but keep at it. Any important self-improvement goal will take time.
6. Pray for help. This may go without saying; but it’s important to remember that we are not in this alone. Ask for divine help in identifying when and with respect to what issues you are going overboard. Ask for help in finding ways to distract yourself when pressured to do things perfectly. And along with enlisting divine assistance, you may find that asking people you trust and care about for help with this will also increase your chance of success.
What about when we don’t try hard enough to do things perfectly?
This will be discussed in Session Six.