By: Alexandra DeWoskin, LCSW
Perfectionism and OCD
As a therapist in Chicago, I often work with clients who state they frequently feel stuck, overwhelmed, and unmotivated. They just don’t seem to be able to rally to complete projects or get things done. There are a lot of reasons that may play into these struggles.
One might have diagnosed and untreated ADHD. Someone may be struggling with mental health issues like depression or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But what often comes up are more behavioral issues that affect their ability to just get started. Quite often that is perfectionism.
While, in theory, perfectionism can seemingly motivate you to perform at a high level and deliver top-quality work, the reality is it often causes the opposite effect – unnecessary anxiety and slowing you down.
Defined, perfectionism is striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards for performance, accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations. I’ve often asked my self-described perfectionistic clients if they can quantify and specifically define perfect for me. To date, I’ve never had anyone be able to do so.
They might say something needs to be great, the best, or meet their standards. When I challenge them to be specific, they usually stumble. The terms they use are subjective and not quantifiable. And, here in lies the problem with perfectionism. Who/what defines what’s the best way to do something?
There is no universal, quantifiable definition of perfect.
How can we achieve something we cannot define? How can we accomplish a goal that can’t be specified? One person’s perfect is another person’s imperfect.
Self-critical perfectionism refers to those who are more prone to becoming intimidated by the goals they set for themselves rather than feeling motivated. They may more often feel hopeless or that their goals will never become reality.
Research suggests that self-critical perfectionism is more likely to lead to negative emotions, such as distress, avoidance, anxiety, and self-condemnation. Socially prescribed perfectionism applies to people who hold themselves to unrealistically high cultural or societal standards.
We see this often in people who feel pressured to strive to obtain a specific body type because society or social media proclaims it as “ideal.” There are often certain professions and/or work cultures that expect exceedingly high demands for excellence like lawyers, medical professionals, celebrities and athletes. Individuals in these professions can experience more hopeless thoughts and stress.
Who doesn’t want to do a perfect job at whatever they’re doing – perfect friend, perfect partner, perfect employee, perfect parent, perfect athlete, perfect physically? Being a high achiever is different than being a perfectionist. High achievers can set their goals high and enjoy the fun of accomplishment and satisfaction of reaching goals that are good enough.
But Perfectionists often set their goals out of reach, have excessively high standards, and accepting nothing less than flawless. These unrealistic standards don’t allow them to reach a personally acceptable level of success or satisfaction because they feel that their actions are never good enough and they can’t be proud of having strived to be their best.
Perfectionism: A Closer Look
When goals are too vast or too big, they become overwhelming. When things feel overwhelming or when the thought that anything less than perfection is seen as a failure, it makes it quite difficult to get started on anything new. It seems ironic that perfectionists would be prone to procrastination because this personality trait is detrimental to productivity.
But perfectionism often results in procrastination. Perfectionists will sometimes worry so much about doing something perfectly that they become immobilized and fail to do anything at all. Or, they may take an excessive amount of time to complete a task that does not typically take others long to complete.
This procrastination can then lead feelings of failure, further perpetuating a vicious and paralyzing cycle. Because perfectionists have a proclivity to ruminate — repetitively mulling over a thought or problem without ever coming to a resolution, it can keep people stuck and lead to avoidance.
Perfectionists can also feel lonely or isolated due to their critical nature and rigidity thus pushing others away. This can lead to lower self-esteem, poor self-image, overall life dissatisfaction and impacts on relationships.
People who are perfectionists typically believe that nothing they do is worthwhile unless it is perfect. Instead of being proud of their progress, learning, or hard work, they might constantly compare their work to the work of others or fixate on achieving flawless output. Even when people with perfectionistic traits get their desired results, they may still be unsatisfied.
They may feel that if they truly were perfect, they would not have had to work so hard to achieve their goals.
A lot of perfectionistic tendencies are rooted in fear and insecurity. They are often uber critical, fear failure, and are defensive in the face of any criticism. High achievers are often pulled
toward their goals by a desire to achieve them. They are also happy with any steps or progress towards their goal. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed by a fear of anything less than a perfectly met goal.
They’re so concerned with hitting the goal and avoiding failure that they can’t enjoy the process of growing and striving. Perfectionists tend to beat themselves up and feel negative when their high expectations are not met. They struggle to move on when things don’t work out the way they had hoped. They tend to not see a task as finished until the result is perfect according to their unrealistic standards. And, they actually tend to achieve less and stress more than high achievers.
So why are people drawn to perfectionism? Early childhood experiences shape us. Some people had caregivers with unrealistically high expectations or who displayed this perfectionistic behavior themselves and modeled that behavior.
When parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches express frequent disapproval in our efforts, we may never see our own efforts as good enough. Children who were frequently praised for their accomplishments may feel pressure to keep achieving as they age.
People with this history of high achievement can often feel overwhelming pressure to continue living up to their previous achievements thus causing perfectionistic tendencies. Other influencing factors in perfectionist personality include:
- A fear of judgment or disapproval from others.
- Having a mental health condition associated with perfectionist tendencies, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
- Poor self-esteem.
- Feelings of inadequacy.
- A need for control.
- Tying self-worth to achievements.
So how can we overcome our perfectionistic tendencies. Start by asking yourself, “Do I use my time wisely and accomplish goals effectively and timely?” You want to slow your automatic pilot and be more mindful and aware of your tendencies and behaviors. When we are able to be more in tune with thought processes, we are more able to alter our self-talk around these issues.
- Create an environment where you feel accepted. This includes self-acceptance. If you must surround yourself with others, make sure they are supportive and don’t reinforce your perfectionist ideals.
- Practice mindfulness to help you learn how to focus on the present without worrying as much about the past or future.
- Set more reasonable goals.
- Create and outline or checklist with those realistic, accomplishable, and measurable goals. Once you’ve completed a goal, tick it off the list and recognize you’re done.
- Reflect on your progress. You might even want to implement a reward system for milestones reached (a 5-minute break, a snack, etc.)
- Ask someone you trust, a colleague, friend, or mentor for perspective and support. Give them permission to let me know if you’re being too obsessive. Receive their acknowledgement of your success no matter how big or small.
- Learn how to receive criticism as constructive not demeaning. Recognize an opportunity to learn and grow.
- Don’t compare yourself to others.
- Allow mistakes and recognize the positives. Lower the pressure you put on yourself.
- Focus on meaning in what you’re doing over perfection.
- Learn to recognize the point of diminishing returns when you’re aiming to complete a task perfectly. Sometimes just getting it done is a worthy goal.
How OCD Therapy Can Help
OCD therapy can be highly effective in helping individuals struggling with perfectionism. Perfectionism, a characteristic often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), involves an intense need to achieve flawlessness and an excessive concern over making mistakes.
While perfectionism may seem desirable on the surface, it can lead to significant distress, impair functioning, and negatively impact overall well-being. Fortunately, OCD therapy approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can provide valuable tools and strategies to address perfectionistic tendencies.
One of the primary goals of OCD therapy in treating perfectionism is to challenge and modify the underlying thoughts and beliefs that fuel this behavior. CBT helps individuals identify and evaluate their irrational beliefs related to perfection, such as the belief that anything less than perfection is unacceptable or that making mistakes is catastrophic. Through therapeutic techniques like cognitive restructuring, individuals learn to identify distorted thinking patterns and replace them with more balanced and realistic thoughts. By reframing their perception of mistakes and imperfections, individuals can reduce the excessive anxiety and self-criticism associated with perfectionism.
Another essential component of OCD therapy for perfectionism is exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP involves gradually exposing individuals to situations or triggers that elicit their perfectionistic concerns and deliberately resisting the compulsive behaviors they would typically engage in to alleviate anxiety. For instance, someone with perfectionistic tendencies may engage in constant checking or repeatedly revising their work to ensure it is flawless.
In ERP, the therapist guides the individual to gradually confront the feared imperfections and resist engaging in compulsive behaviors. Over time, this process helps to weaken the association between anxiety and the need for perfection, fostering a more flexible and adaptive mindset.
Moreover, OCD therapy can assist individuals in developing healthier coping mechanisms and self-compassion. Therapists often emphasize the importance of self-acceptance, encouraging individuals to acknowledge their strengths and limitations and embrace a more realistic and balanced approach to achievement. By promoting self-compassion, individuals can reduce the self-imposed pressure and expectations that drive perfectionism. Additionally, therapists may help individuals set more reasonable and attainable goals, encouraging them to focus on personal growth and progress rather than solely on the outcome.
Most people want to achieve success. Working hard to reach your goals does not always indicate perfectionistic behavior. If you feel stuck, overwhelmed, or dissatisfied most of the time, this indicates perfectionism may be at play.
Striving to be a high achiever is perfectly healthy. It’s good to set and reach lofty goals. Accomplishment plus recognition of our accomplishments leads to self-esteem. As a high achiever, though, you must recognize and accept that you will make mistakes and you will be able to learn from them. Being a high achiever comes with the knowledge and acceptance that you’re bound to do some things imperfectly.
And, that is ok.