Perfectionism and ACT

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterised by setting extremely high standards and striving for flawlessness in various aspects of life. Individuals who exhibit perfectionistic tendencies often have a strong desire to achieve excellence and avoid making mistakes. They may hold themselves to unrealistically high expectations and engage in excessive self-criticism when they perceive they have fallen short of these standards.

Perfectionism can manifest in different areas of life, such as work, academics, relationships or personal achievements and can have various underlying causes. It may stem from childhood experiences, such as being praised or rewarded for high achievements, or from internalising unrealistic societal or familial expectations. Certain personality traits, such as conscientiousness and high self-control, may also contribute to the development of perfectionistic tendencies. Additionally, societal factors, such as the pressure to succeed and the influence of social media, can contribute to the perpetuation of perfectionistic standards.

Core characteristics of perfectionism

Perfectionists often set rigid and unattainable goals for themselves, striving for flawlessness in all that they do. They tend to be highly self-critical, focusing on perceived failures or shortcomings. Perfectionism can manifest as an “all-or-nothing” mindset, where anything less than perfection is seen as a catastrophic failure. Perfectionists may also engage in excessive planning and organisation, have difficulty delegating tasks, and struggle with decision-making due to fear of making mistakes.

It is important to note that there are different types of perfectionism. Some people may display adaptive perfectionism, which involves setting high standards but also maintaining a healthy sense of self-worth and being motivated by personal growth. On the other hand, maladaptive perfectionism is characterised by being overly critical of oneself, experiencing chronic dissatisfaction, and feeling intense pressure to meet unrealistic standards. This type of perfectionism can lead to negative consequences, including anxiety, depression, burnout, and impaired overall well-being.

 

Positives of perfectionism

High achievement: Perfectionists often set ambitious goals and have a strong drive to succeed. Their pursuit of excellence can lead to impressive achievements and exceptional performance in various domains, such as academics, career, sporting, or creative endeavours.
Attention to detail: Perfectionists tend to be meticulous and detail-oriented. They have a keen eye for spotting errors and are committed to producing high-quality work. This attention to detail can be advantageous in fields that require precision and accuracy, such as science, engineering, or design.
Motivation and productivity: Perfectionists are often highly motivated and conscientious individuals. They have a strong work ethic and are willing to put in the effort required to meet their high standards. This can contribute to increased productivity and the ability to accomplish tasks efficiently.

Negatives of perfectionism

Chronic stress and anxiety: Perfectionists frequently experience high levels of stress and anxiety due to their constant pursuit of flawlessness. The fear of making mistakes or falling short of their own expectations can create a perpetual state of pressure and anxiety, leading to burnout and mental health issues.
Self-criticism and low self-worth: Perfectionists are often highly self-critical. They hold themselves to impossibly high standards and are overly harsh when evaluating their own performance. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and a constant sense of never being “good enough.”
Procrastination and paralysis: The fear of making mistakes or not meeting their own standards can cause perfectionists to become overwhelmed and paralysed by the fear of failure. This can result in procrastination, as they may delay starting or completing tasks due to the fear of not achieving perfection.
Impaired relationships: Perfectionism can strain relationships with others. The high expectations perfectionists have for themselves often extend to those around them, leading to unrealistic demands and a lack of acceptance for others’ imperfections. This can create tension and distance in personal and professional relationships.
Reduced flexibility and adaptability: Perfectionists may struggle with adapting to changes or unexpected challenges. Their rigid adherence to high standards and fear of making mistakes can make it difficult for them to adjust plans or cope with uncertainty, leading to a decreased ability to adapt and respond effectively in dynamic situations.

 

Striving for excellence and having high standards can be positive traits when balanced with self-compassion and a realistic understanding of one’s limitations, however, when perfectionistic tendencies become extreme and impair one’s functioning and well-being, it may be helpful to seek professional support.

Utilising ACT therapy to support perfectionism

Overcoming perfectionism is a personal journey that involves developing self-awareness, responding more skilfully to unhelpful beliefs, and practicing self-compassion. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is one method that can support this personal growth.

Here are some examples of how ACT therapy can be applied when working with perfectionism:

  • Reviewing rigid beliefs: ACT encourages individuals to review and question their rigid beliefs about perfectionism. Therapists help clients explore the underlying motivations and fears driving their perfectionistic tendencies, and understand how perfectionism functions. By reviewing these beliefs in this way, individuals can begin to loosen the grip of perfectionistic thinking.
  • Defusion from thoughts: Perfectionists often have a strong tendency to fuse with their thoughts, treating them as absolute truths. ACT defusion techniques help individuals create distance from their perfectionistic thoughts and beliefs. Clients learn to observe their thoughts without judgement and therefore change their relationship with their thinking. This enables them to have more flexibility in responding to perfectionistic thoughts and reduces the impact those thoughts have on their behaviour.
  • Self-compassion: Perfectionists may struggle with self-compassion and experience a constant sense of dissatisfaction, as their self-worth becomes contingent on meeting impossibly high standards. This is often exacerbated by high levels of self-criticism and intense self-judgment. ACT emphasises the importance of accepting and embracing one’s thoughts, emotions, and imperfections. ACT helps individuals develop self-compassion and acceptance, allowing them to acknowledge and tolerate their perceived flaws and mistakes without excessive self-condemnation. This acceptance fosters resilience and reduces the emotional distress associated with perfectionism. Mindfulness techniques, help individuals develop greater self-awareness and the ability to respond to perfectionistic thoughts and emotions with mindfulness and self-compassion. Mindfulness also promotes a more flexible and accepting stance towards one’s internal experiences.
  • Progress not perfection: By clarifying values, clients gain a sense of purpose and direction that extends beyond the pursuit of perfection. Therapists work with clients to align their behaviours and goals with these values, helping them shift their focus from external validation and achievement to living a meaningful life in accordance with their values. Perfectionists often hesitate to act due to fear of failure or making mistakes. The self-imposed pressure to excel can sometimes hinder collaboration and teamwork too, as they often struggle with delegating tasks or trusting others to meet their own high standards. Through ACT, individuals learn to embrace the concept of “progress, not perfection” and develop a willingness to take imperfect action towards their goals. This helps them break free from the paralysis of perfectionism and engage in meaningful activities despite the possibility of imperfection.

By integrating these ACT strategies into therapy, individuals can gradually reduce the negative impact of perfectionism, increase psychological flexibility, and creating a more balanced and fulfilling approach to life.

For individuals:

If you feel you need support in managing perfectionist behaviours and would like to speak to an ACT trained therapist, please visit our therapy page for further information

For professionals:

If you would like to learn more about how ACT can support people with perfectionism take a look at our upcoming live training and on-demand courses. Our blog and resources are also a great place for additional reading and insight.

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