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The vast majority of my clients with anxiety disorders are perfectionists. Additionally, perfectionism is extremely pervasive in our culture generally. However, the typical response when I inquire about perfectionism is, “Oh, no, I’m not a perfectionist. I’m far from perfect.” Such a response indicates a lack of understanding regarding the concept of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the belief that one must attain perfection or one is a failure. Perfectionism is an extreme distortion of the concept “Do your best” when an individual believes that his or her “best” means, “perfect.” The individual becomes fearful of making mistakes and may experience stress, anxiety, and depression as a result.
Some typical perfectionistic beliefs include:
“It is absolutely necessary that everyone like me and approve of me.”
“I must be absolutely competent and perfect in everything I undertake.”
“If I make a mistake, I am a miserable failure.”
“I’d rather not try than to make a mistake.”
“It’s terrible to ever be embarrassed or to appear foolish.”
“A perfect relationship is possible if I just find the right person.”
WHY IS PERFECTIONISM A PROBLEM?
Another response I often hear from people is, “Sure I’m a perfectionist. What’s wrong with that?” The problem is that perfectionistic beliefs undermine an individual’s self-esteem and wreak havoc with relationships.
Consider. Two students work hard on their term papers and both attain a 94 out of a possible 100 points earning each of them an A. Which student will feel better about him or herself? The one that comments, “I did my best and I achieved a good grade,” or the one that states, “I wonder what I did wrong–why didn’t I get 100 points?” The one who overly criticizes his or her performance will feel worse.
Over time, this self-critical attitude will affect performance. As perfectionistic beliefs increase an individual’s stress or anxiety, his or her ability to perform complex and/or mental tasks will decrease. Thus, such attitudes affect job performance, school performance, and even everyday tasks.
For instance, in the job context, an individual may become afraid to share ideas and take risks for fear of making a mistake or appearing foolish. The employee may become so focused on the details of the job that he or she becomes unable to complete a task.
In fact, procrastination and paralysis are common features associated with perfectionism. The perfectionist becomes so fearful of making a mistake that he or she waits to the last possible moment when caught between two beliefs–one focused upon displeasing someone by making a mistake and the other focused upon displeasing someone by not completing the task. Additionally, a person may procrastinate as a way to save face. It’s often easier to rationalize by saying, “I would have done better if I had more time.”
In severe cases of perfectionism, the individual may experience complete paralysis. He or she may quit trying even simple tasks because the tasks become so aversive.
Finally, perfectionists may find that relationships are detrimentally affected by their behavior because the perfectionist not only has high expectations for him or herself, but also for other people. This means that he or she may tend to be overly critical or demanding of other people, especially those close to him or her.