Were you the kid in school who always aimed for an A-plus in every test, often pitting yourself against your classmates? Perhaps you’re at university and ever striving for that distinction average.
You would probably consider yourself a perfectionist.
“Perfectionism works on a continuum. At one end, you have people who aspire and work hard to achieve their goals, which research suggests is not unhealthy,” Professor of Psychology at Flinders University Tracey Wade told The Huffington Post Australia.
“At the other end, you have people who are working unremittingly towards higher and higher goals. They are never satisfied, and their goals become quite unrealistic. Over time, this can be quite paralysing.”
What is clinical perfectionism?
As a clinical psychologist, Wade’s focus lies in the prevention and treatment of unhelpful perfectionism, which is two-fold.
“The first aspect involves identifying those people who are working towards rigid goals. The second aspect is the degree to which the person then defines their worth based on their achievements,” Wade explains.
This is particularly rampant among young teens, who are increasingly facing severe psychological distress in Australia. According to a study coming out of Monash University, one in four Australian teens are self-critical when standards are not met. Another shows 1.6 percent of boys and 3.4 percent of girls experience clinical perfectionism most or all of the time.
Whilst clinical perfectionism is not listed as a disorder in diagnostic terms, it can lead to low mood, suicidal thoughts, intense anxiety and depression.
How does a clinical perfectionist think and behave?
Clinical perfectionists use a range of common cognitive biases and behaviours — often unknowingly.
“Any thoughts that involve ‘must’ or ‘should’ are problematic, as is black and white thinking. A clinical perfectionist might say, ‘If I don’t achieve this, I’m rubbish as a person’. There is nothing in the middle,” Wade said.
And then there are double standards. Perfectionists think they need to be particularly harsh on themselves to keep motivated.
How is it treated?
Wade said Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a clinically-proven form of intervention and treatment that involves understanding the difference between useful and clinical perfectionism, and developing a personalised approach to goal-setting.
“CBT is where the most research has been done, and has been shown to reliably reduce perfectionism as well as depression and anxiety,” Wade said.
– Emma Brancatisano
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