Perfectionism as a tendency to want to obtain the best possible result does not have to be harmful in itself; It may even provide many benefits to various people who have this trait (for example, getting very good academic grades, excelling in a sport, etc.).
The problem arises when this self-imposed perfectionism causes the person to cross the thin line between what would consist of carrying out their tasks efficiently, with passion and care, and what would become an obsession with achieving extremely high goals, even unattainable ones in certain cases.
The latter characterizes the term known as dysfunctional perfectionism; to the detriment of the case of those who strive to carry out their tasks with energy, but without causing them exhaustion and frustration when they have not been able to obtain the expected result, in which case we would speak of a rather functional perfectionism. In this article we will see what is the relationship between excess perfectionism and anxiety problems.
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What is dysfunctional perfectionism?
Perfectionism has been considered a transdiagnostic process. This means that it is a characteristic feature in various mental pathologiessuch as various anxiety-related disorders (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is currently no established diagnosis for dysfunctional perfectionism in any of the diagnostic and statistical manuals (DSM and ICD). However, this personality trait is widely recognized by mental health professionals due to the physical and mental discomfort it generates in people who present it.
Dysfunctional perfectionism is characterized by the desire to continually obtain successful results in everything the person sets out to do and without making any mistakessince, if they committed it, even if they had achieved a positive result, they would feel that they had failed, and this would generate a lot of anxiety.
Therefore, it is very characteristic that these people have dichotomous “all or nothing” thoughts, which consist of that if they achieve the desired results they feel invincible; On the other hand, if things don’t go as expected, they think they have done everything wrong.
These people are often very competitive.who only focus on their goals and separate themselves a little from their social environment and also have a low tolerance for uncertainty, which in the long run generates many symptoms of anxiety and stress.
The physical and mental consequences of people with dysfunctional perfectionism are the following.
1. Burnout syndrome
Also known as “burnout worker syndrome,” it is characterized by extreme physical and mental decline and a feeling of dissatisfaction with the job they doas well as a feeling of depersonalization, characterized by a feeling of being distanced from your coworkers.
Wanting to obtain excellent results means having to dedicate too much effort, which in the long run can lead to chronic stress that triggers this syndrome.
- Related article: “Burnout: how to detect it and take action”
It is common for them to develop depressive episodes because they demand very high standards from themselves in all facets of their lives and, as is normal, there are stages in which things will not turn out as expected, and therefore They will feel like failures, with little hope of improving.
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3. Eating disorders
A very common characteristic in these disorders is perfectionism taken to the extreme. It is more common than normal for them to weigh themselves and look in the mirror several times a daywho carefully control the food they eat and who are very demanding in other areas of their life, such as academics or work.
- Related article: “Eating disorders: how are they addressed through psychotherapy?”
Low tolerance for uncertainty and the urgent need to do things perfectly It generates very high anxiety in these people.
This disorder is extremely common in people with dysfunctional perfectionism and, therefore, we will dedicate a specific section below to explain it in more detail.
- Related article: “What is anxiety: how to recognize it and what to do”
Anxiety in people with dysfunctional perfectionism
Anxiety in highly perfectionistic people is triggered by various reasons. Some of them are those that are caused by internal instigators, which consist of ruminative thoughts that generate high pressure in the individual; such as “I must be the best at everything”, “everything must turn out perfectly”, and this desire to become so causes symptoms of anxiety (e.g., restlessness, alarm, nervousness), all of which can negatively interfere In your daily life.
Fear of failure, another very common characteristic, could be caused by low self-esteem and, in turn, generates high levels of anxiety. This entails performing failure-avoidance behaviors such as dedicating excessive time and effort to carrying out tasks and even avoiding doing them at times when they consider that they will not achieve the expected level of success, leading the individual to procrastinate until they consider that they are not going to achieve the expected level of success. is prepared.
High intolerance of uncertainty also generates great anxiety for these people.. When they have to wait a reasonably long time to obtain the results of their effort, it is characteristic that they suffer tension, physiological activation, and negative anticipatory thoughts in relation to an outcome of what they long to see satisfactorily resolved. Intolerance of uncertainty has also been linked to excessive worry and rumination.
A high degree of neuroticism It is a personality trait characterized by the tendency to experience intense anxiety and negative emotions in response to stressful situations. There are studies that have shown the relationship between neuroticism, the social-family environment, the parenting style received and the degree of perfectionism of the parents with the subsequent development of maladaptive perfectionism among the personality traits of the person.
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Prevention of dysfunctional perfectionism and its psychological problems
It is not an easy task for those who always give the maximum of their abilities in everything they do on a daily basis to lower the piston to try to work efficiently without leading to physical and mental saturation. However, it would be advisable that they try to reduce their workload little by little and even postpone certain tasks that are not pressing.
According to Altstötter-Gleich, they could start with a known task, as an exercise in mediocrity in which people must put in less effort when carrying out a task, and then observe what happens, under the supervision of a professional, which could be very useful. aid so that they understand that nothing serious happens for not always giving one hundred percent in everything they do..
It could be very useful to allow yourself moments of total disconnection in which you only focus on enjoying the here and now, in the process of carrying out a certain pleasurable activity and even doing absolutely nothing.
It would also be important work to change maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that maintain that dysfunctional perfectionism. It would be wise to start by addressing your dichotomous all-or-nothing thoughts about success and failure in everything you do.
Currently there is no psychological treatment designed specifically for people with a high level of perfectionism. However, given that this trait has been recognized as a transdiagnostic psychological characteristic and, more specifically, very common in anxiety disorders, we could apply the Unified Protocol for the transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders designed by Barlow.
The treatment modules are the following:
- Module 1: you have to focus on establishing objectives so that you can achieve them little by little and at the same time it is important that you stay motivated to do so.
- Module 2: you must understand that emotions are not bad or good, but that all of them have a functionality and therefore are equally important.
- Module 3: develop full emotional awareness to understand the relevance they have in helping you learn from your own lived experiences. Focus on the present moment without passing judgment.
- Module 4: know the influence that thoughts have on the emotions they experience.
- Module 5: understand the behaviors you perform to avoid feeling unpleasant emotions.
- Module 6: understand the way in which you try to carry out certain behaviors in order to avoid failure.
- Module 7: develop a tolerance to certain physical, emotional and situational sensations that you previously tried to avoid.
- Module 8: recognize the achievements obtained throughout the process, learning from them, so that they are useful for future situations and thus be able to prevent relapses.