Perfectionism, with its burden of dysfunction, guilt and shame, is not always just a client issue. As therapists, supervisors and other human service professionals, we need to be self-aware if this stalker lives within our own mind and body. We cannot help others heal if perfectionism has us by the throat. It will choke our compassion, patience and efforts to maintain a nonjudgmental approach. We also need to understand the importance of recognizing signs of perfectionism in our clients as it is often lurking in the shadows, not always obvious.
I was inspired to write about this topic because I saw a blog post that included a poem titled The Big Bad Perfectionist. It was their introductory quote that moved me: “We all have a big bad wolf inside of us. A beast who lurks behind the happiness and success in our lives. My big bad wolf is my perfectionism. I hate him. He stalks my every move and haunts my thoughts, but I refuse to let him destroy me.”
What is perfectionism really about?
- Perfectionism is common and often thought of as personality traits setting excessively high performance standards with very critical self-evaluation. The end result can be high levels of stress, anxiety, obsessive behavior, dysfunctional relationships, low self-esteem and more. Jeffrey Young’s Schema Focused Therapy identifies schemas or “lifetraps” we carry in the core of our being including the “unrelenting standards” lifetrap that fits well with perfectionism.
- In “Overcoming Perfectionism” by Ann W. Smith, she defines overt and covert perfectionism. According to Smith, a person with overt perfectionism is likely to enjoy order and structure from an early age. This tendency is not necessarily attributable to low self-esteem, insecurities, etc. Those who are covert are described as “closet” perfectionists and harder to identify, full of inner “shoulds” and pain as they carry around the critical inner parent- stalker, hunter, destroyer of their quality of life.
- And what about the relationship between trauma and perfectionism? If you see someone with perfectionism issues, do you consider this as a possible clue to a trauma history that needs to be assessed? Was their childhood filled with experiences with caregivers dictating the expectation for perfection through words and behavior? Experiences that made them feel they “failed” countless times in the eyes of the caregiver? These are lyrics from a song by Libby Roderick: “How could anyone ever tell you, you were anything less than beautiful? How could anyone ever think, you were less than whole?” For those who feel they should be perfect and cannot achieve those standards, it can be heartbreaking as they internalize the constant trauma and pain of failure. The lyrics speak to the heartache and distress of being regarded as imperfect, defective that is so often a part of the covert style. Signs of covert perfectionism need to be attended to and explored to help the person heal. Look, listen and remember the person often is not aware of their inner demon critiquing and destroying them.
- Perfectionism can be generational as a caregiver teaches it to the child who grows up without saving/healing themselves and then passes it on, unaware, to their children.
- Shame and guilt may be deeply felt due to a person’s inability to achieve that elusive standard of “perfect”. They are ashamed that they are never good enough for the person, or persons, who set the standards for the “shoulds”. If this started in early childhood, the core of their being may feel worthless, of no value. Shame can live in the body without words to name it.
- Perfectionism is a complex issue that can range from enabling a person to become very high achieving and successful (but at what price?) to causing on-going stress, anxiety, depression as well as dysfunction in relationships. Deeply entrenched as part of a trauma history, it can lead to self-destruction.
What to do?
- Perfectionism is common so listen with an open heart and offer thoughtful, gentle engagement and treatment to those who come for martial counseling, depression, anxiety, stress, co-occurring disorders, eating disorders, anger management, substance abuse treatment, PTSD and more. Those with covert perfectionism may be unable to identify themselves has having perfectionism or unrelenting standards. It is all they know, all they think the world should be, so to be anything less than how they live is to move to what they define as an incompetent level of functioning. Listen for their “shoulds”, for their unrelenting standards and help them shift/reframe their thinking as you help them heal.
- Reflect and address your own levels of perfectionism as this will impact on your client relationships if your overt or covert perfectionism is present in the therapeutic relationship.
- Advance your skills by reading current literature, identifying appropriate assessment tools and treatment approaches that can bring this issue to the surface with greater clarity and help the person heal.
- While a quick web search turned up many links for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and its use with perfectionism, also consider other approaches when this core belief is deeply entrenched from childhood stresses and/or traumatic experiences. CBT can be frustrating for some people when it feels as if its approaches are in an endless battle against unprocessed painful or traumatic memories. For some, CBT may feel more effective when the traumatic memories are resolved through evidence-based trauma treatment.
Schema Therapy Institute http://www.schematherapy.com/id201.htm
Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Perfectionism http://www.guilford.com/cgi-bin/cartscript.cgi?page=pr/egan.htm&dir=pp/ad
When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism http://www.amazon.com/When-Perfect-Isnt-Good-Enough/dp/157224559X/ref=dp_ob_title_bk
The Surprising Reason We Beat Ourselves Up (and What to Do About It)- Social Work Career Development Blog http://www.dorleem.com/2013/05/the-surprising-reason-we-beat-ourselves.html
Author: Lesa Fichte, LMSW, Director of Continuing Education
Photo Credit: Wolf and Moon by nixxphotography at www.freedigitalphotos.net