Low self-esteem: How perfectionism sets us back...

 

We all recognise signs of perfectionism, whether it is within ourselves or within others. Yes, the constant pursuit of excellence can have its positive side, which we see in high-achieving individuals who set and attain lofty goals.

However, in our work as clinical psychologists we’re all too familiar with the negative side of perfectionism, which has been linked to poor body image and eating disorders, unrelenting standards and dissatisfaction in athletes and competitive sports, burnout, as well as anxiety and depression [1],[2],[3],.

In attempting to look at how perfectionism impacts on self-esteem, let's look at three dimensions of perfectionism[4]:

1. Self-oriented perfectionism where expectations of perfectionism are imposed on the self (e.g. “I should…”)

2. Other-oriented perfectionism where expectations of perfectionism are placed onto others (e.g. “They should…”)

3. Socially prescribed perfectionism where we perceive that others are imposing perfectionism on us (e.g. “Society expects that I should…”).

 

From the above description of these dimensions of perfectionism, it's easy to see how self-esteem can be affected. Consider the following examples:

Taylor believes that a hallmark of success in life is to excel in every area, that is, “having it all”. She places high expectations on the quality of work that she produces, often working long hours to get the job done so that it is faultless (and thus exempt from criticism). She also believes that she must look perfect and as a result goes to the gym after long hours at work, and follows a very restrictive diet. Taylor also feels that her house should look like it belongs in the pages of a magazine, that she must be the supportive and available friend that she expects her own friends to be, and that she should also be an excellent cook and the perfect hostess because that’s what’s expected nowadays.

Mark works long hours and has a keen passion for sport. Unfortunately, his desire to excel in sport is constrained by his work hours which rob him of the time he needs to train so as to perform at the level that he expects of himself. At the same time, he often has to cut back on overtime in order to meet up with his training buddies. As a result he feels unable to give work or sport 100% of his efforts. His other obligations also frustrate him as he feels that these dilute his focus at work and in sport. With his ‘go hard or go home’ attitude, Mark feels like he’s not excelling in any area of his life, which then impacts on how he feels about himself.

 

Looking at Taylor and Mark it’s easy to understand how perfectionism can impact on self-esteem when we consider the following:

- A drive for excellence leads to setting (unrealistically) high standards in one or various domains

- Time constraints mean that expending time and effort to excel in each and every single domain is not possible

- The inevitable failure to meet the unrealistically high standards impacts on feelings of self-worth

Thus, we see a picture of individuals whose self-worth and self-esteem are overly reliant on unrealistically high standards that are likely unattainable. This leaves them with regular feedback that they have failed to meet their goals.

 

So, how do you know if your own perfectionism is damaging your self-esteem? Watch out for these signs:

- Do you have standards that are unrealistically high (relative to others’ standards)?

- Do you base your self-worth on whether you achieve these standards (“If…then…” logic)[5]

- Do you feel like you fail to meet your expectations much of the time?

- If you do meet your expectations, do you then discount your achievements?

- Do you have negative self-talk and unhelpful thinking styles around achievement? (“Not good enough”, “I’m a loser if I can’t get it just right”, “I only did well because it was easy…anyone couldn’t done it”, “If I don’t get a High Distinction on this assignment then I’ve failed”).


MAKING CHANGES TO PERFECTIONISM

In working with perfectionism we often find that there is great reluctance to shift unrealistically high standards because of a belief that doing this is the same as failing. However, it’s helpful to reflect on the costs that may result from having such unrealistically high standards:

- Is performance in other areas suffering because you focus all of your time and energy on one area?

- Is your physical health suffering because of these high standards? Do you fail to listen to your body because in order to be the best you have to suffer and ‘push through the pain’?

- Are your mental health and wellbeing suffering because of your perfectionism? Do you feel stressed, anxious, or depressed because of continually trying to meet your high standards?

- Are your relationships suffering because of your pursuit of your own standards, or because you impose your unrealistic standards on others? Are you taking time away from nurturing relationships because you must constantly use that time to focus on achieving?

 

How can you help yourself? Let’s look at a few simple strategies to get you started:

Re-examine what you base your self-worth on. If it is only on achieving goals, and your goals are set so high that you’re unlikely to achieve them, then is it possible that you’re actually setting yourself up to continually feel bad about yourself?

Check your thoughts around effort and goal-attainment to see if they’re realistic. Do you believe that you will only succeed at a job if you devote 100% of your time and effort to the task? If so, you’re likely to run into problems if you expect to do jobs perfectly in all areas of your life (hello, competing demands!).

Alternatively, are your achievements discounted once you’ve attained them because if you can do it then it mustn’t be that difficult in the first place?

Develop realistic expectations and standards to work towards. No, you’re not lowering your standards; you’re developing realistic ones that you can reasonably attain.

Aim for sustainable excellence rather than perfection. Putting 100% effort in for 100% of the time towards a goal that is unlikely to be reached (or if it does, the goal posts then shift further away) sounds like a recipe for burnout. Having to take a break or ease off to restore and recharge yourself will then take you even further away from your unrealistic goal, and likely increase your feelings of frustration and failure.

 Finally, a word about making changes when it comes to shifting perfectionism – given that perfectionism can be quite entrenched, it can be unrealistic and counterproductive to expect that once you’ve made up your mind to change things that it should happen instantly. The reality is that we’re talking about learning new skills to overcome longstanding ways of thinking and behaving, so making changes will take a lot of time and practice, and slip-ups are to be expected.  

If you find it hard to shift your perfectionism, we recommend that you speak to a mental health professional to help keep you on track with your progress. 

 

 

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REFERENCES

[1] Egan, S.J., Wade, T.D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M.M. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. New York: The Guilford Press.

[2] Koivula, N., Hassmen, P., & Falby, J. (2002). Self-esteem and perfectionism in elite athletes: effects on competitive anxiety and self-confidence. Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 865-875.

[3] Philp, M., Egan, S.J., & Kane, R. (2012). Perfectionism, over commitment to work, and burnout in employees seeking workplace counselling. Australian Journal of Psychology, 64, 68-74.

[4] Hewitt, P.L, Flett, G.L., & Ediger, E. (1995). Perfectionism traits and perfectionistic self-presentation in eating disorders attitudes, characteristics, and symptoms. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18, 317-326.

[5] Baldwin, M.W., & Sinclair, L. (1996). Self-esteem and “If…Then” contingencies of interpersonal acceptance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1130-1141.