Numerous studies have shown links between eating disorders and perfectionism, and helping sufferers learn to cope with and manage their perfectionistic personality traits may be useful in helping to maintain recovery.
A recent article in the Boston Globe describes perfectionism as
"...a phobia of mistake-making," said Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, which is based in Boston. "It is the feeling that 'If I make a mistake, it will be catastrophic.' "
Striving for perfection is fine, said Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost, a leading researcher on perfectionism. The issue is how you interpret your own inevitable mistakes and failings. Do they make you feel bad about yourself in a global sense? Does a missed shot in tennis make you slam your racket to the ground? Do you think anything less than 100 percent might as well be zero?
So how do you treat perfectionism? CBT is typically the gold standard, helping people recognize and change their ideas that everything must be perfect, the black and white thinking ("If I'm not perfect, I'm a failure"), among other things. The Globe article summarizes a basic perfectionism treatment program as follows:
- Get to know your perfectionism: become more aware of your perfectionistic patterns of thinking and behavior, and their effects on your life and those around you. What are your triggers?
- Challenge your thinking and question your beliefs: Is it really so important for every book on your shelf to be placed even with the one next to it? What would happen if they were uneven? Do you know anyone with uneven books? What are the costs and benefits of spending time making everything "just so"?
- Change your behavior by exposing yourself to what you fear: Practice making mistakes, though not if they will lead to terrible consequences. Send a letter to a friend with typos in it. Burn dessert a bit at a party.
My first thought? Deliberately making a mistake? Are you joking? Obviously, I have issues.
I've always been a perfectionist, practicing my handwriting (in the days before you typed everything) in a little journal, organizing my bookshelves, and let's not even discuss school and grades and test scores. Most studies have found this is true for many sufferers of eating disorders, that perfectionism exists before the ED and persists long after recovery.*
That being said, perfectionism isn't all bad. Though it is distressing to me at times, it has also helped me in some areas. I got a writing gig once because mine was the only pitch letter without any typos. And good grades and test scores have been useful as well. The point is to try and figure out what types of perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors are causing you serious distress, and which provide a more positive role in your life. Two key attributes of perfectionism have been linked to higher levels of distress:
One, he said, is "concealment," the need to hide mistakes and imperfections. The other is "contingent self-worth," the feeling that "in order to be a worthwhile person, I have to perform in such and such a manner, I have to behave perfectly."
Have you been able to tame the more distressing aspects of perfectionism? How? Any suggestions?
(h/t Mind Hacks)
*This result was recently challenged by a paper stating that, in recovered women, perfectionism scores were no higher than in healthy controls. I'm not surprised that recovery helps reduce levels of perfectionism, and maybe a part of recovery is learning to manage your perfectionism.