Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Are You a Perfectionist?




If so, your parents or teachers may love you but the Stress Monster definitely loves you! Our over-achievement culture perpetuates the myth that perfectionism is a valuable trait which leads to success in life. Parents urge their children to do their best in everything they undertake, not realizing the harm they are doing to their children.


As a part of my ongoing quest to defang the Stress Monster, I'm going to discuss the problems with perfectionism and provide some advice to help you overcome the pitfalls of this myth. Too many of my clients suffer from perfectionism, finally coming to realize the negative consequences of this so-called character strength.  I'll describe for you the devastating cycle of stress and defeat caused by this supposedly valuable characteristic.


If you are generally happy with yourself and your accomplishments, you're probably not a perfectionist. Perfectionists set impossible and unreachable goals, then of course fail to reach them. Even when some tasks appear to be accomplished perfectly, most, of course, are not. Chronic failure is inevitable as is the increasing pressure to try harder and better. Feelings of self-esteem created by past achievements will inevitably fade as doubt and self criticism mount. Because mistakes and even partial successes signify lack of perfection, fear of mistakes and external judgments increase. Failure to achieve goals is then seen as lack of personal value or worth. Perfectionists fear lack of acceptance if they let others see their flaws and therefore try harder to be perfect to protect themselves from criticism and rejection. Perfectionists are often procrastinators. Worrying that they may be unable to reach their goals, they put off completing work to avoid the expected mistakes, criticism and failure cycle. In the procrastination phase they can still dream of great success in their work even while the minutes are ticking away from their planned work time. When perfectionism is seen as the secret of success, the next effort will be to try harder to reach these goals, beginning another round of the cycle. There's no time for relaxation and certainly no time for fun when the internal pressure for perfect achievement intensifies. Perfectionism ultimately results in rigid, all-or-nothing thinking and a crippling fear of mistakes and disapproval. Innovation and creativity are stifled. Too many people with high hopes for a better life actually find themselves on a path to anxiety and depression caused by perfectionism.


Now we know that the Stress Monster often operates under the mask of perfectionism. But you don't have to be caught up in this negative cycle! I recommend that you start by re-examining your achievement goals. They can be placed into four categories: perfect achievement; worthwhile achievement with effort; “so what” achievement; failure. Don't put any goals under perfect achievement or failure. Perfect is impossible and failure is a downer. So let's look at the meaningful achievement category. These would be goals that are important enough to you to put some time and energy into successful completion but without excessive time consumption or fear of failure. You expect your tasks to be completed well but understand that you may have missed some details. As an example, I want to write useful articles for the Chatham County Line but I don't have to be the ultimate expert on all these topics. The "so what" category is "So what if I don't achieve this goal, I'm still a worthwhile person." It’s important to know that no one can achieve well in all areas of endeavor. Understanding this, a lot of people just avoid areas where they think they cannot achieve outstanding results. Unfortunately, then, they never know whether they might have achieved some success or enjoyment. If you say to yourself that participation but not achievement is important, you may categorize these areas as "so what" goals. As an example, I can't do many yoga poses but, so what, its ok; I don't have to be a yogi to enjoy a yoga class. And I can do the savasana pose very well!


As the perfectionism topic is important, I'll continue the discussion in my next column with more tips for stressed individuals caught in the clutches of this destructive myth and for parents who want to raise capable but happy children.