Do you always feel the task you approach has to be completed with perfection? Does your desire for perfectionism stress you out and the people around you? Would you like to overcome being a perfectionist? If you answered, “yes” your not alone. There are many people who live life as a perfectionist and are not happy. To help understand who is considered a perfectionist and what someone can do to overcome being a perfectionist, I have interviewed psychotherapist Suzanne Ricklin.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I’m a psychotherapist, educator, workshop leader, Certified Eating Disorders Specialist and the co-founder of Century Mental Health, Inc. in Columbia, Maryland . For over 25 years, I’ve provided counseling for children (ages 9-12), adolescents, adults, couples and families. I’m a Board Certified Diplomate, a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers, a Maryland Board Approved Supervisor and an International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals Approved Supervisor. I received my undergraduate degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from the University of Maryland and my MSW from the University of Maryland School of Social Work.”
“I am also the author of In Vision Concept Cards, a visual flashcard learning tool that I created to help address the needs and skill base deficits of my clients. A former elementary school teacher, I have been particularly fascinated with incorporating visual elements into my therapy work. In Vision Concept Cards are a unique way to explore complex concepts, skills and ideas. They combine auditory and visual learning to address different learning styles and preferences. For more information, please visit www.invisionconceptcards.com.”
Who is considered a perfectionist?
“Perfectionists are often very precise, driven, extremely task-oriented individuals, who not only strive toward excellence, but also attempt to achieve flawlessness in whatever task they undertake. Whether they strive for perfection in one specific area of their life ‘” or in everything they do ‘” they often believe that achieving perfection is not only possible, but also necessary. Some are “self proclaimed” perfectionists, while others may not be so quick to recognize the trait in themselves ‘” despite it being very clear those who they encounter.”
“I believe that some individuals may possibly be predisposed to being perfectionists. A sum of several factors make each of us who we are – our genetic and biological make-up, our temperament and disposition, our personality, how we were raised, our environment and life experiences, our problem solving abilities, our capacity for resilience, etc. It is possible that many of these components contribute to the likelihood of someone becoming a perfectionist.”
“A common characteristic of perfectionists is “Black & White Thinking” ‘” this idea that everything is either a success or a failure. One of the flashcards I’ve written deals precisely with this concept. When approaching a task, perfectionists have a great deal of difficulty in “seeing grey” which often results in never ending quest to continually improve everything they do. They often pay meticulous, extremely close attention to details and can sometimes be extremely hard to please. Obsessive-compulsive thinking is a common trait – these individuals often struggle with persistent, intrusive thoughts and can feel driven to reduce their high level of worry and anxiety by the actions they feel they need to take.”
“As with many other strong personality characteristics, perfectionism can sometimes be a mixed bag. Perfectionists are sometimes those folks who contribute to making the world a more beautiful place; artists, researchers, architects, world leaders, politicians, directors, cinematographers, teachers, craftspeople, parents, grandparents and even young children – perfectionists exist in every walk of life, young and old, males and females. But their gifts and contributions do not come without a cost to themselves and those around them.”
What type of impact does perfectionism have on a person’s overall life?
“Perfectionists push themselves very hard, exerting unrelenting pressure on themselves (and others) ‘” sometimes to the point of personal exhaustion and/or straining their close interpersonal relationships. They often feel as though they fall short of achieving and accomplishing their goals, because their standards are so extremely high. They want to make sure that the end result of whatever they take on is the best that it can possibly be and seem to derive a particular satisfaction from investing the necessary time and effort into their projects and endeavors.”
“Many perfectionists place a great deal of their self-worth on their accomplishments and their ability to achieve perfection in whatever they undertake. They often have difficulty settling for anything that is less than their own highly held standards Perfectionists often strive to reach the unreachable, achieve the unachievable and attain the unattainable.”
“In extreme circumstances perfectionists can end up depleting their own personal resources and at times compromise both their physical and emotional health and well-being. In some instances, the unrelenting, quest for perfection can manifest into a variety of negative symptoms, problems, and illnesses – including emotional, psychological, physical and/or somatic. It can sometimes result in the person’s diminished sense of self-regard or extremely fluctuations in mood, as well as increasing the likelihood of depression and generalized anxiety.”
“Yet, there is also a yin and yang to perfectionists. While perfectionists can be difficult and “a pain” to live and work with, they can also be optimists, dreamers and visionaries. They can possess many very positive attributes that are personally gratifying and often admired by those around them. They can help “raise the bar”, be a source of inspiration, be helpful in assisting others in seeing what might actually be possible, and expand a limited vision of possibilities and breakthrough previously held barriers to progress.”
“Anyone who is a perfectionist, if asked (and being honest regarding their feelings), might disclose the pain and heartache and tremendous pressure they regularly experience – internally (self-imposed) and externally (from others). Anyone who lives with, has raised, is married to, works with or is regularly in close proximity to a perfectionist, will likely express the frustration and angst that comes along with dealing with this personality trait in loved one of friend.”
How can someone overcome being a perfectionist?
“Like most other things, STEP1 in addressing a problem or overcoming/ changing a behavior(s) or is to first recognize it and accept that it is in fact causing you and others some difficulties. STEP 2 is to make the decision that you want to adjust or change that aspect of your personality. STEP 3 is to define (being behaviorally specific) what needs to be changed. STEP 4 is the willingness to take the necessary steps to change or improve the identified behaviors or attitudes. STEP 5 is to incorporate it and/or regularly practice those new behaviors on a continual basis.”
“Like anything else, most changes require regular, concerted effort on the part of the person desiring to make the change. One of my In Vision Concept Cards is “Practice, Practice, Practice” with the follow up card ” — “and then more Practice” addresses this very issue of eliminating old, unhealthy or self-destructive patterns of behavior and establishing new, healthier, more functional habits and behavior patterns.”
“Changing our behavior and/or the way that we interact with others requires a consistent effort on our part. Start slowly, (with small incremental changes) one foot in front of the other — and CHOOSE to regularly practice those new behaviors — even though the old ones are very likely to continually try to “creep back in”. These are habits that we are use to; forming new habits takes time and practice- and awareness and focus! We don’t change the essence of who we are, we just “use the dimmer switch” to fine tune who we are in order to live a more satisfying, enjoyable life and experience more of a sense of well bring and peace of mind.”
“As the Chinese proverb goes “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails”.”
What last advice would you like to leave for someone who is a perfectionist?
“Aside from nature – flowers, butterflies, rainbows, the starlit night sky, etc. – perfection is almost impossible to come by in the real world. What is perfection anyway? Perfectionists can end up not only exhausting and overwhelming themselves, but also those around them (i.e. spouses, family members, children, friends, co-workers, etc.).”
“Life is for living. Experience the full range of all life has to offer – the mixture of pleasure and enjoyment, sorrow and disappointment, dealing with adversity and learning from our mistakes in order to move forward, etc. We are all unique. As individuals, we each posses gifts and qualities that are valuable and important – to ourselves and to others. Each one of us has the capacity to contribute to our world and create our own unique stamp on it.”
“Perfectionists need to decide, through personal exploration, psychotherapy, and personal growth and development, what qualities they wish to hold onto – and which qualities they wish to adjust or change. The choice is theirs to make and only they can make it. I would also want to emphasize the importance of people accepting, valuing and honoring their own unique qualities and basic natures – and not criticizing themselves unnecessarily- or accepting or allowing unwarranted, hurtful, destructive criticism from others. It all boils down to finding the correct balance within ourselves- as with everything else in life.”
“Our unique qualities deserve to be valued, nurtured and appreciated. Perfectionists are not unlikely to turn into individuals who stop caring about the final product- or slack off regarding their own strong, driven work ethic; nor would we totally want them to. They would do best to honor the fact that they try their best to create something of value and continue to do so regardless of what other people think. It is finding the place where constantly “feeling tortured” is diminished to whatever extent is possible for them, so that their peace of mind and over all sense of well being are improved and their contributions remain strong.”
Thank you Suzanne for doing the interview on how to overcome being a perfectionist. For more information on Suzanne Ricklin or her work you can check out her website on www.suzannericklin.com.
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