Mental Health Moment: Seeking a Sense of Control AKA Perfectionism


Nancy Bergeron, RPsych. | [email protected]

We all know one or maybe we are one. Ever been referred to as Monica from Friends? Perfectionism involves the relentless striving for extremely high standards. Judging our self-worth based largely on our ability to achieve these standards and continuing to set demanding standards despite the cost associated with striving for them. Sometimes when our self-worth depends on our achievements, we push ourselves to attain unrealistically high standards. We may act in ways intended to ensure we meet these standards such as checking, correcting, etc., and then judge ourselves harshly and focus on our mistakes. We may criticize ourselves when we fail to meet our standards, affecting our self-worth.

Unrelenting standards are so unrealistically high and inflexible that we are unlikely to be able to meet the standard or we will only be able to meet the standard at a considerable cost. When an unrelenting high standard is not met, instead of concluding that it was unrealistic, the perfectionist will conclude that we did not work hard enough or failed. In the future, some of us will give up all together, while others will try even harder. Unfortunately, even if a high standard is achieved, most perfectionists do not feel happy about this for very long. Some of us might see it as a fluke. or decide that the standard set was not high enough and set a higher one next time.

Perfectionists also engage in a range of unhelpful behaviours to make sure we are continuing to meet the high standards we set for ourselves, such as procrastinating, avoidance, checking, correcting, list making, slowness, etc. These types of behaviours keep the perfectionistic thinking going, because if you keep behaving this way, you may never have the opportunity to test out whether your perfectionistic thinking is true. These behaviours may be time consuming, done at the expense of other important activities and may delay or interfere with attempts to meet the standard set.

We usually tend to interpret things according to what we expect. We perfectionists tend to pay attention to any evidence that we may not be achieving so we can correct these immediately. Perfectionists also have an extreme view of what success and failure is, with no middle ground, causing us to judge ourselves more harshly than others would. Perfectionists display patterns of unhelpful thinking styles that may include the following:

  • Black and white thinking – Seeing only extremes, no shades of grey.
  • ‘Should’ing and ‘Must’ing – Putting unreasonable demands on self and others.
  • Catastrophizing – Blowing things out of proportion.
  • Jumping to conclusions – Assuming that we know what others are thinking or can predict the future.

Rules and assumptions that are flexible and accurate are helpful guides for living. However, rigid rules such as, “the job is not done unless it’s perfect” and inaccurate assumptions such as, “if I make a mistake the business will fail” tend to cause some of us to focus single-mindedly on doing things perfectly. Instead, take time to realize that in most cases, it’s anxiety creating this unrest and allow yourself to surrender to the feeling and let it go.

Book suggestion: Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy.