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When Being A Perfectionist Moves From Helpful To Harmful

It is closely linked with anxiety and depression among teens.

20/04/2017 2:15 PM AEST | Updated 20/04/2017 10:34 PM AEST
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Aim higher, they said.

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.

But what about your friend at uni who fears not producing perfect work, and subsequently avoids tutorials or assignment hand-ins as a result?

Perfectionism is a term that we tend to toss around, sometimes rather flippantly. But it is also one that can be misunderstood. And whilst it is often harmless enough, it can begin to define you.

You have people who are working unremittingly towards higher and higher goals. They are never satisfied, and their goals become quite unrealistic... This can be quite paralysing.Tracey Wade

"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."

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One in four Australian teens are living in psychological distress. How does perfectionism play a role?

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.

"People often say, what's wrong with perfectionism? It's when you go to that extreme end that it becomes a problem and a person's entire self worth becomes tied up in achievement -- rigid achievements that set them up to repeatedly fail."

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.

For those kids who tend to be perfectionistic, there are more opportunities these days to get caught up in that or to mistake the messages around achievement and doing your best. Tracey Wade

Whilst clinical perfectionism is not listed as a disorder in diagnostic terms, it can lead to low mood, suicidal thoughts, intense anxiety and depression.

"There has been large meta analysis performed that shows these high standards and self-identification issues are tied to greater psychological distress. For those kids who tend to be perfectionistic, there are more opportunities these days to get caught up in that or to mistake the messages around achievement and doing your best," Wade said.

"Sometimes parents, teachers or schools -- the crucible of achievement -- can contribute to unhelpful messaging, so they definitely play a role."

Klaus Vedfelt
Schools are the "crucible of achievement" and certainly play a role.

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.

"They think they need to be extremely self-critical or harsh on themselves to keep motivated. Yet they would never say that to someone else in the same situation," Wade said.

Such thinking results in three common scenarios where a perfectionist either temporarily meets standards, fails to meet their them or avoids them entirely.

"If a clinical perfectionist reaches a goal, they immediately dismiss it as being too easy, and would feel like they need to raise the bar for next time," Wade said.

"When they don't achieve it, they react negatively, each time tipping a person into a damaging spin. For some, this leads them to live on the fringe of their life as they fear not living perfectly."

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.

She is currently involved in working with primary school kids in a classroom setting.

"These unhelpful messages start early in life," Wade said.

"There is also a lot of important room for building up social relationships, social support and giving kids ample chance to do other things that are about living and participating -- not just passing the next test."

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about clinical perfectionism or mental illness contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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