By Mandy Parsons
“Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.”
This popular saying, credited to Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, contains much truth. However, for those who live by this mantra, it can be a double-edged sword, especially if your definition of “well” is more like “perfectly.”
I am one such person and, to be honest, it can be exhausting.
For people like us, the drive for personal excellence often eclipses reality, and we begin to wonder, Are my expectations too high? Am I being reasonable? Expecting too much of yourself is a trap that any of us can fall into if we’re not careful. Furthermore, it affects everything from our relationships to our professional lives, and even our appearance.
If you have difficulty discerning healthy expectations in any area of your life, or are experiencing mental distress because of it, read on.
Healthy Perfectionism vs. Neurotic Perfectionism
Are my standards for myself too high? Someone with performance orientation may ask this question on a regular basis. And to be clear, perfectionism is not all bad.
There are many qualities of perfectionism that can serve your overall success and well-being. Perfectionists are very driven, reliable, confident, detail-oriented, and good problem solvers, among other positive attributes.
Additionally, healthy perfectionism, according to author and Personal Excellence blogger Celes Chua, embraces positive motivation, takes action, celebrates small victories, prioritizes self-care, and learns from mistakes.
But there is a distinction between what is considered healthy perfectionism and what is not. Neurotic perfectionism, also referred to as clinical perfectionism or dysfunctional perfectionism, occurs when “perfectionists let their achievements define who they are and often experience deep unhappiness over their goals.”
VeryWellMind.com further identifies this type of toxic perfectionism by these three characteristics: 1) extremely high standards 2) self-worth tied to high standards, and 3) persistence despite detrimental outcomes.
So how do you know whether your perfectionism is bordering on neurotic? Are you overvaluing achievement in your life? Consider the following questions:
- Do you procrastinate or avoid a task, waiting for the “perfect” moment or for fear of failure?
- Do you feel that, despite your best efforts, nothing is ever enough?
- Do you micromanage details and obsess over tiny mistakes at the expense of other priorities?
- Do you reset your standard once a goal is met?
- Do you strive to reach your goals “at all costs,” including to the detriment of your own health?
Your answer to that last prompt is particularly important, as there is a concerning relationship between unrealistic expectations and mental health.
Perfectionism and Mental Health
The correlation between perfectionism and mental health issues like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders is well-studied.
According to a report published by the American Psychological Association (APA), there has been a notable increase in various forms of perfectionism over the last several decades. It cites a 2017 World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that mental illness among youth is also at a record high and proposes “a link between rising perfectionism and rising psychopathology.”
Another study published by the Clinical Psychology Review corroborates the idea that “elevated perfectionism is associated with co-occurrence of psychopathology,” providing substantial evidence that perfectionism increases and supports eating disorders.
The solution? Research suggests that treating perfectionism alongside co-occurring conditions is the most effective route. But how do you treat perfectionism?
Help for Unhealthy Perfectionism
If you believe you may be expecting too much of yourself and neglecting your mental or physical well-being, there is help.
From a clinical perspective, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy (ET) are widely used treatment options for perfectionism. The goal of these techniques is to challenge your perfectionistic thinking via behavioral experiments, or by recreating triggering scenarios.
Perhaps you are not yet ready for therapy and would like to try making a few adjustments on your own. Here are some ways to protect your wellness if you struggle with expectations and mental health:
- Set Realistic Goals
Prevent feeling overwhelmed by breaking down large tasks into smaller, more reasonable goals and celebrating your progress along the way. For someone who struggles with an eating disorder, this may mean reevaluating your standards and setting new ones with a health professional.
- Combat All-or-Nothing Thinking
Resist the all-or-nothing mindset due to fear of failure. Chua suggests that embracing failure is the surest way to learn what works for you and fosters long-term growth.
- Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Are the minutiae driving you crazy? Avoid getting bogged down in the small stuff and focus on the bigger picture. Or if this is too hard, delegate the details to someone you trust. Doing so will save you time and spare your sanity.
- Prioritize Self-Care
Dysfunctional perfectionism is often rooted in the belief that our worth is tied to our success or the way we look. Practice loving yourself well by repeating positive affirmations, being kind to your body, or simply extending grace when you make a mistake.
If you wrestle with perfectionism and believe it may be compromising your well-being, especially as it relates to eating disorders, please reach out to us for help. Our caring staff here at The Meadows Ranch provides trusted, proven eating disorder treatment for women and girls who are struggling. That treatment also involves looking at underlying causes and co-occurring mental health issues that may be contributing to your eating disorder. Start your healing journey today.