Understanding and Managing Perfectionism

Understanding and Managing Perfectionism
Picture of By Dilara Hasdemir, ACSW
By Dilara Hasdemir, ACSW

Dilara provides psychotherapy for teens and adults in individual or family sessions.

Are you someone who always works hard to make sure that “everything is just right”? You probably get lots of positive feedback for being good at what you do – organized, ethical, dependable. While this is a blessing, when the drive to be perfect becomes excessive and unhealthy it can become the curse of perfectionism. Perfectionism is valued and associated with positive qualities, and at the same time can cause a lot of stress and create problems in multiple domains of your life.

I have worked with many clients who are dealing with perfectionism, and it seems to be particularly common here in Silicon Valley. Let me share some background on perfectionism, and more importantly how it can be treated.

What Is Perfectionism? Am I A Perfectionist?

Perfectionism can be defined as a tendency to strive for unreasonably high standards while also being excessively critical of oneself. If you are living with perfectionism or have a perfectionist in your life you have likely seen some of these common features:

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What Causes Perfectionism?

As with many things in our lives, perfectionism often has its roots in early life experiences. Difficult situations such as ongoing criticism, humiliation, conditional love and approval, and rejection from parents, or parents’ own perfectionistic tendencies and the high standards they set for their children, can all show up later in life as perfectionism. These experiences can leave you with many unmet needs, vulnerable feelings, and negative views of yourself. As a result, you might develop perfectionism as a coping mechanism.

If you are a student, immigrant, or working in Silicon Valley, perfectionism may be something that got reinforced or that you had to adopt to get established. Being a student means always creating something and being evaluated for the work you have done, which can evoke fear of making mistakes and receiving criticism. If you are an immigrant, you have to work extra hard in an unfamiliar environment and probably strive to be perfect as you compete with other immigrants as well as citizens to prove yourself. And working in frantic, fast-paced Silicon Valley similarly demands you to always be productive, fast, and creative.

Consequences of Perfectionism

Often people tend toward perfectionism as a way to avoid mistreatment, criticism, and rejection. Being “perfect” provides positive feelings like safety, recognition, and being respected. However, over time it can cause more difficulties rather than providing relief. For example, a wide range of problems such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, suicidal behaviors, and relational and health problems have been found to be linked to perfectionism.

While struggling with perfectionism, you might also find yourself procrastinating. Contrary to common belief, procrastination does not occur because of laziness or a lack of self-discipline. Instead, procrastination often reflects that you care a lot and want to do perfect work, but the fear of imperfection holds you back. Procrastination and perfectionism can put you in an unhealthy loop.

Treating Perfectionism

The good news is that perfectionism is something that can be treated and managed with the right support. Given the complex nature of perfectionism, it is important to understand and address the underlying causes of it instead of just treating symptoms. This is best done through long-term and in-depth therapies. For example, research showed that clients with highly perfectionistic qualities did better in long-term, intensive psychoanalytic therapy as compared to those who used short-term therapy such as CBT or other treatment forms. Of course as a perfectionist it might be difficult for you to tolerate the lack of certainty in treatment, the inevitable imperfections of the therapist, and the open-ended nature of therapy. Dealing with these is actually an important part of the therapeutic process, along with working through current as well as past relevant experiences. The goal here is to help you develop tolerance for your mistakes and flexibility in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Unhealthy perfectionism is not something you need to live with for the rest of your life. With support and help, you can be more creative and productive without feeling stressed and pressured to be perfect. You can develop and maintain a balance in your relationship with yourself, others, and your achievements.

We are proud of the results we’ve been able to achieve treating perfectionism at Los Altos Psychotherapy. If you feel perfectionism is having a negative impact on your life, contact us to schedule a free 30 minute consultation.

About the Author

Dilara Hasdemir provides psychotherapy for teens and adults in individual or family sessions, with a focus on supporting clients in gaining a deeper understanding of their current stress and helping them grow, be more insightful, and more creative. She holds masters degrees in both Clinical Psychology and Social Work. Dilara is a Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW #111571) working at Los Altos Psychotherapy under the supervision of Tracy Greene. You can contact Dilara directly at dilara@losaltospsychotherapy.com, or schedule a free consultation with her.

Additional Resources

At the risk of reinforcing a perfectionist’s desire for certainty and complete information, there are many excellent resources available on this topic. If you are interested in learning more, here are some of the sources I used in preparing this blog post.