How To Break The Cycle Of Perfectionism

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Being self-disciplined and organized are qualities that can help you perform better at school and be more productive and successful at work. These traits allow others to see you as reliable, responsible, and capable. 

Self-discipline, emotional and cognitive control, focus, planning, organization, and time management are essential aspects of executive function. We use executive function skills to control our cognitive abilities, manage behavior, organize time, prioritize tasks, solve problems, maintain relationships, overcome stress, and so on.

These skills determine our academic, professional, and personal success; research has found that impaired executive cognitive function is strongly correlated with behavioral issues and learning difficulties.

However, strong executive skills are often taken to an extreme, coming within an inch of perfectionism and generating a significant amount of distress for an individual. Some studies link unhealthy perfectionism to higher rates of anxiety and depression. 

People who hold themselves and others to high standards are often considered rigid perfectionists who are challenging to communicate, cooperate, or work with. 

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The Perfectionist Personality Type

Perfectionism is known as a type-A personality. Perfectionists are rational, with good self-control, high ethical standards, and strong principles. They always strive for the best, often to the point of being overly critical of themselves and others.  

A-personality type individuals are rarely satisfied with their accomplishments, making it difficult to be truly happy and content. Perfectionists tend to be intolerant and self-righteous – they need to be in control because they believe they are the only ones who can do things the right way. For this reason, perfectionists often end up with too much to do, causing them to be stressed out and often experience complete burnout. 

Still, it seems that perfectionism is not necessarily a bad thing. Research suggests that there are different subtypes of perfectionistic behavior, some of which can actually boost your life success.

Adaptive and Maladaptive Forms of Perfectionism

Healthy perfectionists have a growth mindset. They challenge themselves by setting high but realistic goals and standards – their actions are inspired by strong intrinsic motivation. Adaptive perfectionism means gaining pleasure from task processes and competition, not only the end result. Healthy perfectionists accept mistakes. They don’t see mistakes as failures but as opportunities for learning and growth, so they stay engaged in activities, not allowing failures to discourage them. 

Maladaptive or neurotic perfectionists have a fixed mindset. They set extremely high and unrealistic goals and often become obsessed with their goals, striving to achieve them at all costs. Maladaptive perfectionists are overly self-critical; they want to be the best, so they fear failure and see mistakes as huge disappointments. 

At their worst, neurotic perfectionists are often stubborn, impatient, judgmental, and overly critical, often becoming obsessed about self and others’ imperfections. They usually have low frustration tolerance and lack stress resilience, often quickly becoming angered when under stress. 

However, as with every other trait, perfectionism occurs on a spectrum. According to Canadian clinical psychologists Dr. Paul Hewitt and Dr. Gordon Flett, there are three main types of perfectionistic behavior:

  • Self-oriented perfectionists 
  • Other-oriented perfectionists 
  • Socially prescribed perfectionists

1) Self-Oriented Perfectionists

In self-oriented perfectionists, perfectionism is directed towards self, with unrealistic self-expectations. If you are a self-oriented perfectionist, you will most likely have the following attributes:

  • You are meticulous and organized
  • You set high but achievable standards for yourself
  • Your behavior is driven by intrinsic motivation
  • You are productive and successful at work 
  • You express your needs, attitudes, and feelings assertively
  • You are resourceful 

2) Other-Oriented Perfectionists

People who are dominantly other-oriented perfectionists direct perfectionistic expectations towards other people. They hold others to high standards, expecting them to do things flawlessly. These individuals can be very difficult as partners or co-workers as they can be judgmental and critical to others.

In romantic relationships, other-oriented perfectionists are often overly critical of their partner. They typically tend to suppress their emotions, distancing themselves from their partner emotionally and physically. Their criticism is often detrimental to other-oriented perfectionists’ relationships. 

3) Socially Prescribed Perfectionists

Those with socially prescribed perfectionism are driven by the pressure to be the best in everything they do. They believe that other people have excessive expectations of them. These individuals tend to project their own perfectionistic standards to others, feeling enormous pressure to perform at their best. They worry other people will reject them if they are not perfect in everything they do. Socially prescribed perfectionists are very self-critical, prone to anxiety, and low self-esteem

How to Make the Best of Your Perfectionism

While there is nothing wrong with being moderately conscientious and holding high standards for yourself, setting unrealistically high standards for yourself and other people can be detrimental to your mental health, physical well-being, and relationships.

Here are some tips to help you turn your perfectionism into healthy determination and excellence.  

Identify Your Perfectionism

Awareness of your maladaptive perfectionism is the first step in shifting from perfectionism to healthy striving. After you evaluate where you are on the perfectionism spectrum, you will be empowered to find a balance and make a shift towards adaptive forms of perfectionism. 

Adaptive perfectionism means that you set high yet realistic goals for yourself and can adjust when necessary. Healthy perfectionism is about understanding that you cannot do it. It means being resilient and quickly recovers from minor mistakes and problems. When you shift to adaptive perfectionism, you will enjoy the process of work instead of focusing only on results. 

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Break the Cycle of Perfectionistic Ruminations

Maladaptive perfectionists tend to ponder their thoughts or problems without finding a solution, generating a significant level of anxiety and stress. Unlike problem-solving, ruminations are unhealthy and unproductive, often lead to avoidance of specific tasks. They keep you spinning in circles without ever coming to a resolution. 

Sometimes the use of journaling to identify your ruminations and triggers that set them off. Precisely take note of the circumstances you were in when ruminations started. This will help you identify patterns of your perfectionistic judgments and come up with strategies to control your thoughts.  

Another tool is to use flexible thinking. Is there another way to look at the situation, “is there really a perfect way to do this or is there something that is good enough for now?”

If you are ready for support to shift out of maladaptive perfectionism reach out and let’s chat. 

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Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood is a Certified Life Coach, and best-selling author. Her mission is to empower high-performing adults and teens to become resilient self-leaders by reducing stress and anxiety, overcoming imposter syndrome, working through trauma, and re-discovering their AuthenticMe®.

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My name is Kamini Wood, and I’m here to accompany you on your journey toward understanding yourself on a deeper level so can create the life you want personally and professionally. It’s time to embrace your AuthenticMe ™