By Elizabeth Sabatino, Clinical Mental Health Intern
Did you know procrastination is a characteristic of perfectionism? Maybe you have been labeled as a procrastinator, someone who puts things off until the last minute. The word procrastinator often carries a negative connotation, as if you might be a lazy person with no motivation to complete a task at hand. While the possibility of that could exist, I wonder if you have been misrepresented. What’s underneath that procrastination? Are there underlying contributors to your incessant drive for a fully desirable outcome? Maybe you put off a task because you’re afraid the end result will not be good enough, you fear you will be judged, and/or you anticipate feeling like a failure. These fears are evident in perfectionistic behaviors.
Perfectionistic behaviors can be both adaptive (helpful) and maladaptive (hurtful). The same behaviors that cause you to avoid situations out of the fear of making a mistake (maladaptive) may also push you to self-actualization by motivating you to stay focused on your goals (adaptive). The difference lies in the impact of these behaviors on your daily functioning and relationships, especially your relationship with yourself.
Consider these five processes that describe perfectionism1:
- Setting nearly impossible goals to achieve
- Having an extreme fear of failure or fear of making mistakes
- Engaging in negative self-talk and self-criticism tied to achievement
- Avoidance of experiences
- A culmination of larger problems as the result of this avoidance.
What exactly does this mean? It means no two perfectionists are the same, and it is neither a badge of honor nor a stamp of shame to be experiencing perfectionism. It means that a cycle of perfectionism exists, and it can be incredibly uncomfortable to break the cycle.
If you struggle with perfectionistic tendencies, you might also struggle with anxiety, depression, disordered eating, body image distortions, obsessive-compulsive disorder, professional burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder, and/or other mental health difficulties2,3. You might struggle to make decisions, continuously work past your threshold, take on too many responsibilities, avoid any potential criticism, procrastinate tasks, and/or excessively seek reassurance1. You might fear disapproval, be stuck in all-or-nothing thinking, feel rigidly bound to live and act as you believe you “should,” and/or perceive others as superior4.
Realizing that these behaviors may in fact be more hurtful than helpful may lead you to engage in self-critical thought patterns. Know that this is not your fault, there are many causes at the root of perfectionism and the behaviors are simply a strategy for survival. One of the first steps you can take to improve your perfectionism is to improve your awareness of its impact to your daily functioning. Can you identify your patterns? Which parts of your perfectionism are helping you? What parts are keeping you from living the life you want?
If these behaviors resonate with you and are causing distress in your life, you might benefit from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an approach that focuses on increasing psychological flexibility through examining unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, determining and living out personal values, and using mindfulness practices to open up and be more present.
Check our website for more information on our upcoming group on perfectionism, which will occur via telehealth for one hour each week for five weeks. If groups are not your thing, or if you would like to dive deeper than the workshop will allow, I am currently accepting new clients at a reduced direct rate! Please contact me at email@example.com or 412-212-6640 if you would like to schedule an appointment. I look forward to being with you alongside your journey toward a more accepting and mindful life.
- Kemp, J. (2021). The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism: Build Your Best (Imperfect) Life Using Powerful Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Self-Compassion Skills (Workbook). New Harbinger Publications.
- Burgess, A., R. O. Frost, C. Marani, and I. Gabrielson. 2018. “Imperfection, Indecision and Hoarding.” Current Psychology 37:445–53.
- Egan, S. J., T. Wade, and R. Shafran. 2012. “The Transdiagnostic Process of Perfectionism.” Spanish Journal of Clinical Psychology 17(3):279–94.
- Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Brown University. (n.d.). Perfectionism. Counseling and Psychological Services. Retrieved January 14, 2023, from https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/support/counseling-and-psychological-services/perfectionism