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Overcoming Perfectionism: How to embrace imperfection with CBT

Do you often find yourself trapped in the relentless pursuit of perfection, setting standards that feel impossibly high and being overly critical of your own efforts? You’re not alone. This blog post explores the prevalence and impact of perfectionism on how we feel. Additionally, we’ll shed light on how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be a powerful ally in breaking free from perfectionism’s grip.

How common is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is more common than you might think. Research indicates that approximately 25% to 30% of the general population displays perfectionistic tendencies.

Who is More Likely to be Affected?

  1. High Achievers: Professions like healthcare and academia often attract individuals with perfectionistic tendencies, leading to an increased prevalence in this group.
  2. Students: The academic pressure and desire for high achievement contribute to heightened perfectionistic tendencies in students.
  3. Young Adults: Transition periods and societal expectations can amplify the pursuit of perfection during early adulthood.

How can I tell if perfectionism is a problem for me?

Perfectionism may masquerade as diligence and goal pursuit, but when taken to extremes, it can significantly impact your well-being and self-esteem. Are you frequently setting goals that seem unattainable? Do you find yourself disproportionately distressed by small mistakes or setbacks? Recognizing these signs is the first step in understanding your unique struggle with perfectionism.

Perfectionism isn’t just a personal challenge; it poses risks to your overall well-being and can increase the risk of suicide in the presence of other mental health issues.

Acknowledging the impacts of perfectionism is crucial as you navigate your journey toward seeking help.

  • Are your personal or professional goals often set at a level that seems almost impossible to achieve?
  • Do you experience intense feelings of failure or distress, even in response to minor mistakes or setbacks?
  • Is your self-worth closely tied to your achievements, making it challenging to feel successful or satisfied?
  • Do you find yourself avoiding tasks or activities? Or procrastinating due to a fear of not meeting your own standards or expectations?
  • Are you sacrificing socialising, hobbies, or sleep to maintain your standards?
  • Are your relationships suffering?
  • Do you feel at risk of burnout?

How CBT Help?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) offers a personalized approach to help you navigate and overcome perfectionism. In sessions with your therapist, you’ll look at where you are having difficulties. Together, you’ll explore the thinking and behaviour that may be maintaining the problems. You will work with your therapist to explore change, and to experiment with adjustments which may make all the difference.

Does CBT for perfectionism work?

Research consistently highlights the effectiveness of CBT in treating perfectionism. Studies show significant reductions in perfectionism, anxiety, and depression. CBT is not just about alleviating symptoms; it’s about opening doors to improved self-esteem and overall psychological well-being. CBT also gives you the tools to address any setbacks that may crop up even after you finish therapy.

How CBT Tailors to You

CBT stands out as a powerful and personalised approach in treating perfectionism. It’s not a one-size-fits-all remedy. Rather, it’s a tailored journey designed to address the unique aspects of your perfectionistic thinking and behaviour. Here’s a closer look at how CBT is expertly crafted to guide you towards lasting change:

  1. Identifying Perfectionistic Thinking Styles: To start, the focus of CBT is to identify specific thinking styles associated with perfectionism. Are you prone to ‘all or nothing’ thinking, where success is deemed only if goals are met perfectly? By pinpointing these thinking patterns, CBT equips you to challenge and reshape them, promoting a more realistic and flexible mindset.
  2. Challenging ‘All or Nothing’ Thinking: ‘All or nothing’ thinking is a common hallmark of perfectionism. It can create a rigid mindset that undermines progress. CBT engages you in a process of understanding that, even if end goals are not met at 100%, progress has still been made. This shift in perspective is pivotal in breaking the cycle of perfectionistic expectations.
  3. Addressing Selective Attention: Perfectionists often focus excessively on flaws or mistakes, ignoring positive achievements. CBT works with you to identify areas where you tend to ignore the positives and achievements. The introduction of a ‘positive log’, a record of successes no matter how small, can be a valuable tool in redirecting selective attention towards a more balanced view of your capabilities.
  4. Unpacking Rigid Rules: Perfectionists often impose rigid rules, or unrelenting standards on themselves, and sometimes others. Rules such as “I should always prioritise work over socialising.” Drawing from psychoanalyst Karen Horney‘s theory of the ‘Tyranny of the Shoulds’, CBT helps you reassess and modify rigid self-imposed rules that contribute to the unrelenting standards of perfectionism.
  5. Double Standards Awareness: Another area of focus in CBT is recognising and addressing double standards. Perfectionists may impose rules on themselves that differ from the standards they apply to others. By cultivating awareness of these double standards, CBT guides you towards a more consistent and fair evaluation of yourself and others.
  6. Overgeneralisation and Catastrophic Thinking: Small mistakes may lead to catastrophic thinking for perfectionists, assessing the overall `imperfect` outcome as a complete failure. CBT will help you challenge and reframe catastrophic thoughts.
  7. Exposure and Response Prevention: CBT incorporates techniques such as exposure and response prevention to help you confront the fears associated with making mistakes or falling short of expectations. Gradual exposure to these fears, while managing unhelpful habitual patterns of behaviour, will empower you to face challenges head-on and develop resilience in the face of imperfection.
  8. Developing Coping Strategies: Rather than relying on perfectionistic tendencies, CBT aims to equip you with adaptive coping mechanisms for navigating stress, setbacks, and uncertainties. This proactive approach fosters resilience and self-compassion.

In essence, CBT is a finely tuned process that respects the individual nuances of your perfectionism. By addressing thinking styles, challenging rigid rules, and fostering adaptability, CBT empowers you to break free from the grip of perfectionism. The goal isn’t to eliminate your drive for excellence but to redefine it in a way that allows for growth, self-compassion, and a more fulfilling life. Your journey towards embracing imperfection starts with the personalised guidance of CBT, paving the way for lasting positive change.

If perfectionism is impacting your life, consider reaching out for support. Our consultant psychologist, Dr Sian Thrasher, offers a free 15-minute telephone consultation specifically for you to discuss CBT and treatment options.

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