Counseling Today, Features

The messy reality of perfectionism

By Lindsey Phillips February 26, 2019

Philip Gnilka, an associate professor of counseling and the coordinator of the counselor education doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), has heard of severe cases of perfectionism at college counseling centers in which a student refuses to submit any work out of fear of being evaluated. As long as the student does not turn in work, his or her sense of self remains intact, he explains.

This raises a question: Is perfectionism a bad thing? Within the mental health professions, healthy debate is taking place on this very topic. Some therapists view all forms of perfectionism — whether self-oriented, others-oriented or socially prescribed — as negative, whereas others believe there is an adaptive component to perfectionism.

Gnilka, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and the director of the Personality, Stress and Coping Lab at VCU, is in the latter camp. He notes that, historically, perfectionism has been considered a negative quality, so the goal was to reduce clients’ perfectionistic tendencies to make them “better.” However, he says, this black-and-white thinking — a quality of perfectionism itself — does not fully capture perfectionism.

Instead, Gnilka, a member of the American Counseling Association, argues that perfectionism is a multidimensional construct that consists of perfectionistic strivings (i.e., Do you hold high personal expectations for yourself and others?) and perfectionistic concerns, or one’s internal critic, (i.e., If you don’t meet these standards, how self-critical are you?). He says these two dimensions can help counselors determine who they are working with: an individual with adaptive, or healthy, perfectionism (someone with high standards but low self-criticism) or an individual with maladaptive, or unhealthy, perfectionism (someone with high standards and high self-criticism).

In his research, Gnilka has found that one’s perfectionistic concerns, not one’s strivings, are what correlate with negative mental health aspects. “What’s really correlating with depression, stress and negative life satisfaction is this self-critical perfectionism dimension. It’s not holding high standards itself per se,” he explains.

In fact, Gnilka argues that lowering clients’ perfectionist standards or instructing them to do things less perfectly is the wrong approach. Anecdotally, he’s found suggesting that clients lower their standards is a nonstarter and often doesn’t work. Instead, Gnilka advises counselors to focus their interventions on the self-critical voice. “Focusing on that internal critic … is where you’re going to get your most malleability because that’s the one [dimension] that’s connected with all the [negative aspects of mental health],” he says.

Healthy striving

Beth Fier, the clinical director of SEED Services: Partners for Counseling and Wellness in New Jersey, finds perfectionism to be problematic. “It’s rigid and it’s interfering in some way, and it’s pretty unforgiving in terms of its high standards so that it actually is creating difficulty either for [people] and their experience of themselves or maybe in their relationship to others or how they’re interacting in the world.” However, she also acknowledges that many people want to be high achieving.

Because perfectionism can be limiting with its focus on being “perfect,” Fier, an LPC and an ACA member, likes the concept of excellentism. As an excellentist, people still want to do their best, but the term allows them to think more flexibly about how to do that, she explains. The focus is more on the process, which allows people to appreciate and enjoy the effort, the learning curve and their growth along the way. Perfectionism becomes problematic when people focus solely on the outcomes — on if they meet a certain goal, Fier adds.

Emily Kircher-Morris, the clinical director and counselor at Unlimited Potential Counseling and Education Center in Missouri, offers a similar perspective. Rather than using the term adaptive perfectionism, she prefers the phrase striving for excellence. Perfectionism, she explains, often implies there is no room for error, which becomes self-defeating. “All of these [perfectionistic] characteristics can be strengths,” she notes. “It’s when they go too far that they start causing disruptions to our lives.”

Despite their differences in terminology or mindset about perfectionism, Gnilka, Fier and Kircher-Morris all agree on the importance of healthy strivings and the need to intervene on the critical voice.

Kircher-Morris does this in part by having clients create realistic reframes, which is a way of changing a negative thought into something more optimistic. Counselors can draw thought bubbles and ask clients to fill in one of the bubbles with the negative thought and the other bubble with a realistic reframe. For example, the negative thought “I got an answer wrong when the teacher called on me. Now everyone thinks I’m dumb” could be rewritten as “I am allowed to make mistakes just like everyone else.” This exercise helps clients figure out a way forward without ignoring the uncomfortable emotions, Kircher-Morris adds.

However, too much reframing may cause clients to feel like counselors are imposing a “right” way to think about the situation, says Kircher-Morris, an LPC and a member of ACA. She finds that using dialectical thinking to look at and validate both sides is empowering for clients. For example, one technique she finds helpful is moving clients from either/or statements to both/and statements such as “I’m doing the best I can and I know I can also do better” and “This is going to be really hard and I know I can get through this situation.” By shifting their thinking, clients realize that two opposite statements can both be true; they are not necessarily exclusive to each other, she explains.

Much of Fier’s work involves softening the critical voice. She often poses the following scenario to her clients to illustrate the potential danger of this voice: “Imagine you are put in charge of selecting a child’s kindergarten teacher. Would you want a teacher who is strict and will tell the children they are horrible as a means of motivating them to learn and grow? Would you want a teacher who lets children do whatever they want and not worry about the quality of their work? Or would you want a teacher who has high expectations but works with and supports children to help them figure out opportunities for growth and learning?”

Although the answer seems obvious in that context, it is often difficult for people to apply that same balance of high expectations and support to themselves, Fier says.

Valuing progress, not outcomes

It is common for people who possess perfectionistic tendencies to assume they can achieve something quickly and easily, Fier points out. That’s why breaking down activities into smaller step-by-step pieces that clients can build on is important, she says. This process provides opportunities for positive reinforcement; allows clients flexibility in achieving their overarching aim; and allows clients to focus on what they have accomplished rather than on the ultimate outcome, she explains. 

Fier, the past president of the New Jersey Association for Multicultural Counseling, redirects clients from working toward goals to working toward values and aims, which allows them greater flexibility in how they address the situation. This includes asking clients the reasons they set a particular goal and why that goal matters. Shifting the focus to values and aims helps clients feel good about what they accomplish rather than beating themselves up for what they fall short of achieving, she adds.

Fier recently worked with a client who had a goal of balancing care for her mental and physical self. The client focused on outcome-based goals of diet, exercise and weight loss. By focusing on the outcome, she would berate herself whenever she didn’t make it to the gym. Fier helped the client broaden her perspective on how to achieve her aim or value of having a healthy lifestyle, which can include exercising, eating well, getting adequate sleep and pursuing good mental health.

“Some days that might be going to the gym. Some days that might be taking a quick walk outside because [she has] all of these other competing priorities,” Fier says. “It’s that intention and motivation that keeps [the client] focused on the care piece as opposed to the ‘I didn’t make it’ piece — ‘I screwed up and did it again.’”

Kircher-Morris also warns counselors to watch out for “goal vaulting.” This is when people set a goal and, as they close in on reaching that goal, they instead raise the bar. In the process, she explains, they forget about all the steps they completed to get to that point, which makes them feel like they aren’t making progress or haven’t accomplished anything.

One technique Kircher-Morris uses to address this counterproductive thinking is to have clients write down the steps they have accomplished to reach a certain goal on a graphic organizer, such as a visual symbol of stairsteps or a ladder reaching an end goal.

Kircher-Morris worked with a gymnast who was frustrated because she couldn’t seem to master a back handspring. Kircher-Morris helped the client break down all the skills she had accomplished in pursuit of that goal, such as learning how to do a cartwheel and roundoff. “You have to recognize those successes along the way because, otherwise, you’ll always feel like you’re falling short,” Kircher-Morris says. “A lot of times it’s easier to work backward — starting with the end goal but then thinking back to what were all of the things you had to do to get to that point. That, sometimes, is a little bit easier to conceptualize.”

Understriving

Most people equate perfectionism with overstriving and overachieving. But this isn’t always the case. Perfectionism manifests in different ways, Kircher-Morris points out.

“When clients come in … I hear anxiety, I hear stress [and] I hear being overwhelmed,” she says. “When we get into what is causing that level of distress, I find that it’s often coming from a place of perfectionism, whether that’s manifesting as procrastination or risk avoidance or just really trying to control situations.”

Avoidance, Gnilka says, “seems to be a big coping difference between adaptive perfectionists and maladaptive perfectionists. They use the same amount of task-based coping and emotion-based coping, but the avoidance-based coping seems to be very, very high for maladaptive perfectionists compared to an adaptive one.” Thus, counselors might ask clients why they are avoiding certain things and what they are afraid of, he says.

Kircher-Morris agrees that counselors should help clients understand what they are avoiding. People often assume that avoidance is based on a fear of failure, but what they don’t realize is that avoidance can also result from a fear of success, she argues. For example, imagine a student who avoids going to medical school based on a fear of doing well at school only to discover that he or she hates being a doctor and is unhappy.

“They fear the success that then might lead to something negative in the future,” Kircher-Morris explains. “It’s not something you would typically think of when you’re thinking of perfectionism, but it can have a negative outcome in the future and lead to procrastination or avoidance of decision-making.”

The challenges children and parents face

Socially prescribed perfectionism extends beyond the microcosm of the nuclear family, Kircher-Morris says. Thanks in part to the influence of social media, children and parents alike often start to think that others have a “perfect” life and then feel the pressure to measure up to that impossible standard.

Kircher-Morris recalls a client who chose a college degree program based on the respect he thought it would garner from others rather than based on his own interests. The client had struggled in high school, so he wanted to prove to others that he was capable.

To offset these societal pressures, counselors can help clients become aware of their own personal goals and ways to measure success for themselves, Kircher-Morris suggests. This might include guiding clients to figure out what is at the root of their motivation to get into a particular school or to achieve a certain ACT score, she says.

Kircher-Morris has also noticed a connection between perfectionism and people who are gifted or of high ability. “Part of the reason why you see [perfectionism] so commonly with people who are gifted and … with talented athletes is because things come so naturally to them, so then they don’t know how to handle it when something is difficult,” she says. People who are gifted are often told that they are smart, so they internalize this quality as a part of their identity, she continues. Then, when they face something difficult or challenging, they don’t know how to handle it because it doesn’t fit with who they think they are.

Kircher-Morris builds on these clients’ strengths by using analogies about times in the past when they got through something difficult or handled a situation differently. Then she points out how they could apply those same skills to their current situation. Counselors might also encourage clients to find their own comparisons, which facilitates independence, she adds.

Many parents also feel the pressure to be perfect. Seeing other people’s children getting accepted to elite schools or competitive athletic teams (things that often get trumpeted on social media posts) can cause parents to worry about not being good enough, Kircher-Morris points out. “When they see their child fail, it feels like a reflection on them,” she says. Or there’s the “fear that if [they] don’t handle this correctly, it’s going to change the trajectory of [their] child’s life.”

Counselors can help parents reframe this negative line of thinking. One method is to have them consider how allowing children to make mistakes is actually a sign of good parenting because it helps children learn, grow and become independent, Kircher-Morris says. “You don’t have to be the parent who always has all of the answers and who always manages your emotions,” she reminds parents. “It’s OK to show that vulnerability and process through that.” In fact, she often advises parents to be vulnerable within the parent-child relationship. Rather than hide their vulnerability, parents can talk through their feelings and model how to handle the stress.

For example, if a parent is anxious about a phone call or a meeting, the parent can share that feeling with the child and show the child how he or she would handle the situation. “You’re teaching the kids that it’s OK not to be perfect,” Kircher-Morris says. “It’s OK to have worries and stresses, but also you can still work through them.”

Kircher-Morris also finds that parents sometimes unintentionally facilitate perfectionism in their children. For instance, when a child brings home a school assignment, parents might focus on the errors and have the child correct them. Parents might also offer praise whenever the child scores 100 percent but question the child otherwise (e.g., “What happened? Why wasn’t this a better grade?”).

Another common example is when a parent unloads the dishwasher after the child loads it because it was not done to the parent’s standards, Kircher-Morris says. This behavior undermines the child’s level of independence and feeling of self-efficacy, she explains. In constantly critiquing and correcting their children in such ways, parents are teaching them that there is no room for error and that they aren’t “good enough” unless perfection is attained, she says.

Instead, counselors can help parents learn to focus on the process, not the outcome, Kircher-Morris advises. For instance, rather than fixating on individual test grades, parents can ask, “What did you learn on this paper? What did you get out of the assignment? What was the area of struggle?”

In an episode last year on Kircher-Morris’ Mind Matters podcast (mindmatterspodcast.com), Lisa Van Gemert, an expert on perfectionism and gifted individuals, discussed how teachers and schools also inadvertently engage in behaviors that increase perfectionism in students. She cited two examples of ways the educational system isn’t set up to recognize effort, persistence and diligence. First, teachers often give out stickers to reward “perfect” work. Second, having a perfect attendance award causes some children to come to school even when they are sick just to get the award. These types of rewards set up an unreasonable standard, Gemert said

“When we focus on the outcomes — the grades — then that’s going to lead to that perfectionism,” Kircher-Morris says. “When we focus on the process and the learning, then we’re going to move away from that and really focus on that striving for excellence.”

Imperfect experiments

To ease clients’ expectations of doing things perfectly, Fier often uses the word experiment: “We’re going to experiment this week with trying this [practice] and see how it goes. … This is simply a process that we’re going to test out and troubleshoot and come back to.”

The emphasis on experimenting is also a way of modeling flexibility, Fier stresses. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, I succeeded or I failed,” she says. “You’ve succeeded in the process of attempting.”

Rather than asking clients who expect to do mindfulness or meditation practices “perfectly” to engage in that practice every day, Fier may ask them to experiment with practicing their soothing rhythm breathing (slowing the exhale and inhale down to a rhythmical rate) twice during the week for 30 seconds. Then, the next week she may ask them to engage in this practice for five minutes every day or every other day. Again, counselors should emphasize that they are experimenting and exploring what works for the client, she says.

Kircher-Morris also finds it helpful to frame counseling activities as experiments. She often instructs her younger clients to be “scientists” with her. She tells them that together, they will come up with a hypothesis and test it out.

She has a middle school client who was deliberately not submitting work unless it was “perfect” (i.e., a completed assignment that lived up to her standards). In this situation, Kircher-Morris and the client crafted the following hypothesis: “If I turn in a math assignment and I have missed two problems, nothing will happen.” To test this hypothesis, the client intentionally missed two problems on an assignment that wasn’t worth a lot of points. In doing this, the client realized that the world didn’t fall apart when she got an 80 (instead of a 100) on this one assignment because it didn’t affect her overall A in the class. Kircher-Morris adds that this technique is similar to prescribing the symptom or systematic desensitization (a method that gradually exposes a person to an anxiety-producing stimulus and substitutes a relaxation response for the anxious one).

As scientists, clients also collect data. Kircher-Morris asks clients to document every time that they procrastinate on an assignment, think they are going to mess up or believe they have to do something perfectly. They can track these data with a phone app, in a notebook they carry with them or on an index card placed on the corner of their desk, she says.

Counselors should avoid framing this activity so that it unintentionally becomes a reward system for clients — an assignment they can “win” or “lose,” she warns. Instead, the point of the experiment is to have clients gain awareness, establish a baseline and test whether their beliefs associated with perfectionism are based on emotions or facts, she explains.

The shame of ‘falling short’

Fier doesn’t think she has ever worked with a client with perfectionistic tendencies who wasn’t also experiencing a sense of shame. She finds that perfectionism, depression and anxiety often cluster together, and the underlying thread is “this proneness toward self-conscious emotions, particularly shame, and that tendency to then get caught in a feedback loop in the brain that leads us down this road of self-criticism.”

Because clients who have perfectionistic tendencies often mask their struggles, building rapport and a trusting and open relationship with them as counselors is crucial, Kircher-Morris emphasizes. “They know that they’re in distress. They know that they’re struggling, but they don’t want it to be perceived that they can’t handle it on their own,” she says.

Perfectionism reinforces the idea that we are not enough to reach the standards we set for ourselves — the ones that are unrelenting and too high to be achieved, Fier says. “We start to have this sense of self that is based on this global sense of failure,” she explains. “It’s not that my behavior failed or that one part of me hasn’t been able to accomplish something. It’s that I’m the failure.”

In addition, shame makes people feel like they don’t belong, so they want to hide or disappear, Fier adds. In fact, some clients experience such a sense of unworthiness — to the point of self-loathing — that they often don’t feel they deserve compassion, she says. Thus, she finds compassion-focused therapy beneficial. Some compassion-focused techniques that help to regulate the body include soothing rhythm breathing, body posture changes (e.g., making the back and shoulders upright and solid and raising one’s chin to help the body feel confident) and soothing touch (e.g., placing hands on one’s heart).

Fier will also have clients imagine a compassionate image such as a color that has a quality of warmth and caring. She has clients explore their various emotional selves, such as their anxious self or their angry self, and think about how these emotions feel and sound when they speak to the client and to each other (e.g., “What does the angry self say to the anxious self?”).

Fier acknowledges that these practices and techniques do not get rid of the self-critical thoughts or difficult emotions entirely. However, over time, clients learn to pull up a compassionate self to sit alongside the difficulty, she says. “The compassionate self is the hub of the wheel that holds all these other parts of [the individual together],” she adds.

Kircher-Morris also identifies another point of emphasis. “One of the main components of perfectionism is a discomfort with vulnerability,” she says. “So, when [counselors] can facilitate that and give permission for that vulnerability, that’s where the change happens.” She recommends that counselors look for opportunities to use appropriate self-disclosures with these clients. She believes this gives clients permission to be vulnerable and reduces the power differential between client and counselor.

Being vulnerable and compassionate takes strength, Fier points out. She helps clients redefine strength — which in the United States is often viewed in terms of competition and domination — to realize that it is about being open to care and vulnerability.

Fier has also learned an important lesson: When working with clients, she doesn’t begin discussing compassion as something warm and caring. When counselors begin a session discussing compassion as a caring aspect, some clients think this emotion is too scary or difficult for them to relate to, she explains.

Instead, Fier begins by talking about accessing courage and eventually transitions into the courage it takes to be open, vulnerable and compassionate. She finds that some clients have experiences of feeling courageous or strong, but they have a difficult time connecting to experiences in which they have offered themselves any sort of care or comfort. “So, if [counselors] can start with where the client is and build up that courage, [they] can use that to help access the vulnerability and begin to redefine the strength aspects of being vulnerable,” she says.

Living with imperfection

For some counselors, perfectionism hits close to home. Counseling is a profession in which people often feel like they need to get it “perfect,” Fier says.

Kircher-Morris suggests that counselors follow the advice they often give to clients: Make the best decision based on the information you have at the time. “Our clients give us what they can, and it’s our job to connect with them and facilitate that and help them put those pieces together,” she says. “But we’re also working with what we have at the time, whether that’s our training and our professional development … [or the client] relationship and what we know about that particular client.”

Kircher-Morris says she often looks back at herself from five years ago and sees a counselor who thought she had everything figured out and knew what she was doing. Now, she says, she
realizes she was just doing what was best in the moment.

Counselors have to remember that they will not always get it “right,” and they have to learn to tolerate imperfection, Fier says. Every morning, Fier glances at the misaligned shower shelf in her bathroom, which serves as a gentle reminder that it’s OK to live with imperfection. Counselors can guide clients to find similar reminders to help them feel less threatened by imperfection, she suggests.

Perfectionism always goes back to one central issue — the self-critical voice, Gnilka asserts. “The idea that human beings are going to be able to walk around in life and not have any self-critical talk is just not possible. It’s not that healthy perfectionists are just walking around with no self-critical piece to them. It’s just that they’re walking around with no more, or maybe slightly less, than the average person of the population,” he says. “What [counselors] are trying to do is alleviate [the critical voice] so it’s not so critically depressing and keeping people from enjoying life.”

At the end of the podcast episode on perfectionism, Kircher-Morris acknowledges that if we don’t allow ourselves to admit we have flaws, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. “Perfectionism is the refusal to show any vulnerability,” she says. “It’s vulnerability that allows us to be authentic, who we really are, and establish those strong relationships with those around us. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be perfectly imperfect.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at consulting@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

1 Comment

  1. Janine Alexander

    It is vital to be aware that there is also a personality disorder called OCPD – Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. This involves perfectionism, amongst other symptoms, to a distructive intra- and interpersonal level. It is not to be confused with OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

    Reply

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