Self-Critical Perfectionism. What Is It And How Do We Combat It?
Dunkley, Zuroff and Blankstein (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 1, 234–252) defines self-critical perfectionism as a “constant and harsh self-scrutiny, overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior, an inability to derive satisfaction from successful performance, and chronic concerns about others’ criticism and expectations.” Self-Critical Perfectionism results in individuals setting such high expectations that they often fail to take action on plans, projects, and goals. This avoidance is caused by an intense sense of fear and intimidation. Individuals imagine that the completed task will not be excellent or well-received by others. As a result, Self-Critical Perfectionists are procrastinators, filled with anxiety, and depression.
How does this happen? In my experience, it often starts with the expectations we place on our children.
Take John, for example. John is a premed student whose parents always pushed him to excel and “be better.” 95% on a test was never good enough. His parents prevented him from spending time with friends and forced him to study longer and harder. These demands were the same for sports as well. When John DID get 100%, he never received any positive reinforcement. He recalled getting a perfect grade on his junior high school chemistry mid-term, but instead of congratulating him, his mother said, “You better hope the second half of the year goes just as well or you can kiss your top college picks goodby.”
Now, as a premed student, John was anxious, exhausted, and feeling unfulfilled. He found himself staring more at his phone, playing video games, and going out with friends. Studying was put off until the last minute out of fear of ultimately failing his next test. Consumed by thoughts of not being good enough, John slipped deeper and deeper into a mixed state of anxiety and depression.
John is not a real client, but his story resembles something I have seen time and time again. So what do you do if you are John?
For starters, you need to get back in touch with your values, senes of meaning, and the things that are most important to you. Being the best may have its rewards, but it means very little if you are anxiety-ridden, depressed, and afraid to take action. Ask yourself:
What is important to me? Am I moving towards or away from what I value?
For John, it was about becoming a doctor so that he could help relieve people’s suffering. John needed to return to this place of value. He needed to set aside the grades, the prestige, the imagined accolades, and reevaluate his sense of purpose and meaning.
John also needed to stop feeding his irrational beliefs with his negative self-talk and self-defeating behaviors. These are AWAY moves.
If you believe or say that something is going to be hard, terrible, or a disaster, then you are letting your assumptions, black and white thinking and negative self-talk pre-determine how you feel and ultimately how you behave.
Self-Critical perfectionists need to break large tasks down into smaller, bite-sized components. John needed to set a manageable routine of study. Instead of 4-5 hour study marathons, he could set goals to study several pages of material for no more than 40 minutes and then stop to engage in an enjoyable activity. When his thoughts turned towards failing the test, he acknowledged his thoughts as worrisome or anxious. How are these thoughts helping you right now? Is worrying about failing the test beneficial? No? Then what type of self-talk would be more helpful and motivating? For John, what was beneficial was about taking control of what he can in the here and now. You can do this too.
- Identify what matters
- Take small, and manageable action steps NOW (Don’t become stuck in the minutia of the details)
- When anxiety arises about the imagined outcome, acknowledge it as worry and ask yourself, “How is this worry serving my greater purpose?”
- Avoid negative self-talk, black and white thinking and envisioning terrible outcomes.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. There will always be someone who IS or at least appears to be better, more accomplished, and successful. You are on your own journey.
- Allow yourself the opportunity to produce work that is “flawed” and imperfect. Make mistakes that you don’t correct. Embrace the errors.
- Give some consideration that your “mistakes” and “errors” mean nothing to someone else. They may never matter or even be noticed by another person.
- Learn the difference between essential and inconsequential tasks. When we are stuck in perfection, we believe that every task is of high consequence. This can’t be true.
Number 6 reminds me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the practice of mending broken or cracked porcelain with gold filling. The Japanese were not concerned about hiding the imperfections. Instead, they highlighted and celebrated a damaged piece by using a precious metal to show the world how vital this object was to them.
Perfection, specifically self-critical perfection, holds us back from taking action. Taking action is the key to creating purpose and meaning in one’s life. Inaction and fear of moving forward keep us locked in a stuck place full of anxiety, despair, exhaustion, and meaninglessness.
Let the image of your life be covered in gold filling as you move towards what matters to you!