Overcoming Perfectionism With CBT

Over the next few pages we’re going to learn some techniques to help us respond mindfully to our obsessive thoughts. This can help reduce our urge to resort to compulsive behaviors or mental rituals.

How To Overcome Perfectionism With CBT

The perfectionism model in the video is adapted from Overcoming Perfectionism 2nd Edition: A Self-help Guide Using Scientifically Supported Cognitive Behavioural Techniques, by Roz Shafran, Sarah J. Egan, and Tracey D. Wade.

Being a perfectionist is hard and takes a lot of work. Maybe it feels like all of that effort is worth it or even necessary to get the results that we want. But there are more effective and less demanding ways to achieve and accomplish our goals. To understand why, let’s start by looking at a model of perfectionism.

This model is adopted from “Overcoming Perfectionism: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques,” which I’ll link to in the description. One of the main components of perfectionism is that our self-worth is overly dependent on striving and achievement. If I’m not the best, I’m worthless. If I let people down, no one will like me. Without my successes, I’m nothing.

This leads to unrelenting high standards – I have to be better than anyone else and work harder than them. I need to surpass all expectations; I must excel. Mediocrity is not an option. We look at how to reduce this relentless striving for excessively high standards without sacrificing results in our other video on perfectionism. This also leads to cognitive biases and perfectionistic performance-related behaviors, and we’ll look at both of these in a minute.

If we meet our standards, we reappraise them as not demanding enough. “That was too easy. I could have done better. I need to push myself more next time.” This strengthens the cycle of perfectionism, and failure to meet our standards is met with harsh self-criticism. “I’m a failure. I’m so useless. I’m such a loser.” Sometimes, our standards are so high and rigid that they seem so daunting that we avoid trying to meet them altogether, which again is met with self-criticism. “There’s no point in me even trying. It’s too hard for me. I’m not good enough.”

Both of these results damage our self-worth, making us strive for perfection even more to compensate for our perceived inadequacies. We can reduce perfectionism by modifying our cognitive biases and our perfectionistic performance-related behaviors. Let’s start with cognitive biases, also known as cognitive distortions, like all-or-nothing thinking which involves seeing things in black or white terms – it’s either all good or all bad, complete success or worthless.

Changing all-or-nothing thinking involves recognizing that most things aren’t black or white but exist along a spectrum. “I made one mistake, that’s not so bad. If it’s not perfect, it can still be pretty good. I got almost everything done on my list, that’s a lot.”

Should statements: “I should eat less. I should be thinner.” The problem with should statements is that they come with an implied judgment that we’re bad people if we don’t do what we think we should. We often try to use should statements for motivation. “I should go to the gym more. I should stop eating junk food.” But shoulds can drain our motivation when we fail at something we think we should do because we feel so bad about it. Should statements can make us rebel because nobody likes to be told what they should or shouldn’t do, even if we’re the ones telling ourselves that. If we find ourselves engaging in should statements, we can reframe them as desires or intentions. “I plan to eat less. I’d like to go to the gym more.” This still gets our message across but lowers the risk of harsh self-criticism.

Discounting the positive: “It’s not a big deal, anyone could have done what I did.” If we find ourselves doing this, we can ask ourselves why doesn’t that count? What reasons do I have to just dismiss this? Most of the time, we won’t be able to come up with a good answer, which makes it harder to discount everything positive. We can start giving ourselves some credit when things go well.

Mental filter: where we filter out positives and ignore them while dwelling on negatives. “People don’t like my videos. What am I doing so wrong?” Instead, we can ask ourselves if there are any positives or even neutral things about the situation we’re overlooking and then adjust our filters to let those aspects through as well. “Some people don’t like my videos, but a lot do.”

Overgeneralizations, often stated in terms of always, never, or nothing. “I’m never good enough. I always mess up.” So, then we start looking for exceptions. “I did okay on our last project.” Replace words like never or nothing with sometimes or some things. “I’m not that good at some things. Sometimes I make mistakes.”

Double standards: “It’s okay if he makes a mistake, but I expect better from myself.” Double standards feed into perfectionism as we excessively strive to be better than others and criticize ourselves even if we achieve a level that we’d find acceptable in anyone else. Instead, it’s only fair to ourselves to hold ourselves to the same standards we have for others. It’s an act of self-compassion that helps counter perfectionism.

Learning to recognize and challenge our cognitive biases and modify cognitive distortions is a big step towards reducing perfectionism. Now let’s look at some typical perfectionistic behaviors.

Relentless striving in pursuit of goals: “I need to work harder.”

Constantly measuring progress: “I’m taking way too long in comparison to others. All of my friends are doing better than me.”

Excessive preparing and organizing: “I need to go over this again. I should make another list and memorize what I’m going to say.”

Checking: “I should go over this again in case I miss something.”

Reassurance seeking: “Can you read this over and let me know if it’s okay?”

Failure to delegate: “I need to do this myself. I can’t trust anyone else to do it well enough.”

Procrastination: “I’ll get to work after I have another cup of coffee.”

Giving up too quickly: “This is too much work. I give up.”

How do we start to change our behavior? Since thoughts and behavior are closely related, modifying our perfectionistic thinking like we talked about in the last section will help shift our behavior. Conducting what’s known as behavioral experiments is also important. Rather than engaging in our habitual perfectionistic performance-based behaviors, we experiment, trying out some less stressful and less demanding ways of acting to see what happens. If these new behaviors are successful and yield good results, then we’ll be motivated to continue with them and rely less on our old perfectionistic ways of acting.

These behavioral experiments also help reinforce changes in our thinking. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Let’s say we’re preparing an important presentation for work, and we’re having perfectionistic thoughts like, “This needs to be flawless. I can’t afford any mistakes. I must stand out and impress everyone. What if someone asks a question I’m not prepared for?”

The sorts of behaviors we might engage in could be things like obsessively perfecting the design and content of each presentation slide, checking and rechecking to make sure there aren’t any mistakes, memorizing the presentation, and rehearsing it repeatedly to fine-tune every aspect. Creating a comprehensive list of potential questions and rehearsing responses.

So, we start by modifying our thoughts. “I’ll strive for excellence but focus on doing my best. A small mistake won’t make any difference. I can’t prepare for every possible question, and it’s okay not to have all of the answers. I can respond based on what I know.” If you have trouble coming up with new ways of thinking about these situations, I have some videos that can help.

Now we set up a behavioral experiment to test the accuracy of these new thoughts and to try out new ways of acting in this sort of situation. “I’ll limit slide revisions to two times, then perform a thorough double-check. After that, I’ll refrain from further changes unless I find a mistake while rehearsing it. My focus while practicing the presentation will be on building confidence rather than memorization or perfect delivery. I’ll prepare answers for anticipated questions, but I’ll trust myself to be able to respond effectively to any unexpected questions that may arise.”

Then we ask ourselves, “What do I predict or worry will happen?” “I haven’t worked on it enough, and people will notice how unprepared I am. I won’t leave a good impression. I’ll notice a mistake on one of the slides while presenting and get flustered. I’ll stumble over my answers to some of the questions and embarrass myself.”

Afterwards, we conduct the experiment and ask ourselves, “What actually happened?” “I worried a lot that I wouldn’t be prepared and was nervous beforehand, but felt okay once I started presenting. It went well, and I got positive feedback afterwards. There were a couple of things I would have liked to have done differently, and I didn’t answer one of the questions that well. But stuff like that always happens, no matter how much I prepare.”

Then we ask ourselves, “What did I learn from this experiment?” “I can give an effective presentation without completely stressing myself out, obsessing over every little detail. There’s no such thing as a perfect presentation, and this was more than good enough. If something doesn’t go exactly as planned, I can handle it in the moment.”

This experiment reinforces our modified, more flexible thinking and helps us believe these types of thoughts more in the future. It helps us trust that we can be less rigid in our behavior and still accomplish and achieve what we need.

Going back to the model, approaching things in this manner allows us to give ourselves credit for the parts that went well and to be compassionate towards ourselves – not beat ourselves up about things we wished had gone better. Realizing that no amount of striving and hard work can eliminate the possibility of things not going perfectly.

One more example: we’re organizing a dinner party, and we want to make sure everything goes just right. So, our perfectionistic thoughts could be things like, “This place must be spotless. Every dish needs to be special. Everyone must have a great time.”

Our perfectionistic behaviors could be: “I have to find recipes that no one’s had before. I need to prepare everything myself to make sure it’s good enough. I should practice each dish a few times to make sure I get it just right. I need to make an extra dish in case there are any food allergies. But this is a lot of work. I should watch some YouTube to relax before I get started. Or maybe this is all too much for me to handle, and I should just cancel.”

So, we start by modifying our perfectionistic thoughts. “I’ll give the place a good cleaning, but nobody will notice if it’s not spotless. I can cook some dishes I already know how to make. The meal isn’t the most important thing – people just want to have fun with their friends.”

Then we set up a behavioral experiment. “I won’t obsess over every detail. I’ll make sure the place is tidy, but not worry about making everything look perfect. I’ll find one new recipe and prepare it once in advance to make sure it’s good. For the other dishes, I’ll make stuff I’m already comfortable with. I’ll get my partner to help with the cleaning and prep and ask them to make a salad.”

Then we ask ourselves, “What do I predict or worry will happen?” “The food won’t be anything special, and people will be disappointed. The salad won’t be good enough, and I’ll need to remake it myself. Someone will have a food allergy they didn’t tell me about and not be able to eat something. Some people will cancel last minute, and it’ll end up being boring, and people will leave early.”

Afterwards, we conduct the experiment – host the dinner party – and ask ourselves, “What actually happened?” “A couple of dishes weren’t as good as I’d hoped, but I still got a lot of compliments on the food. Someone didn’t show up, but everyone seemed to have a good time, and only one person had to leave early. I wasn’t as stressed as usual and able to just relax and enjoy being with my friends.”

Then we ask ourselves, “What did I learn from this experiment?” “I’m a good cook, and people like my food even if it’s not as good as it could possibly be. I don’t have to do it all myself, and I can ask for some help. People care more about seeing friends than anything else, and I have a better time when I’m more relaxed.”

Based on the successful outcome of the behavioral experiment, we start to actually believe our modified, less perfectionistic, and more flexible thoughts. Gain confidence that we can act in these less rigid ways than our typical perfectionistic-based types of behavior.

To overcome perfectionism, we need to adjust our unrelenting high standards, which we talk about in our other video about perfectionism. Modify our thinking away from the cognitive biases and distortions that are typical of perfectionism. Adjust our perfectionistic performance-related behaviors to make them less rigid and more adaptable and manageable. Finally, we need to learn to give ourselves credit for our successes and things that go well and not engage in harsh self-criticism if we fail to meet our standards or things don’t go exactly as we planned.

Check out my other video and free self-help course about overcoming perfectionism. Please hit the like button and subscribe to my channel. If you’d like to support my channel and help me make more videos like this, I really appreciate it. Please check out the donation links in the description.

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