Clinical perfectionism: a problem of strategy, not outcome

Clinical perfectionism is a problem of strategy, not outcome. Perfectionists have high standards and expectations for themselves and others. This value can be a strength, as long as perfectionistic strategies aren’t compulsively used to control thoughts and feelings.

Adaptive perfectionism is a healthy, ego-syntonic way of approaching tasks that leads to a good outcome. Clinical perfectionism occurs when anxiety and OCD hijack your values and bully you into approaching goals in a way that undermines your performance.

Some of the characteristics of clinical perfectionism include:

  • Rigidly following rules (“I should or must do things this way.”)
  • Every task is equally important.
  • Mistakes are catastrophic.
  • Repetition until it feels/looks/sounds “right.”
  • Missing deadlines due to procrastination.

To shift clinical perfectionism into adaptive perfectionism:

  • Prioritize based on values.
  • Experiment and take risks.
  • Notice when your efforts result in diminishing returns.
  • Fight procrastination.
  • Identify conscientious people as models.

Self-talk that reduces Clinical Perfectionism includes:

  • “It’s okay for me to have high ideals. In any given moment, it’s also okay to be uncertain or make a mistake.”
  • “Any progress is better than no progress.”
  • “I’m willing to take a risk or make a mistake in this instance, in light of my values.”

Behavior that reduces Clinical Perfectionism includes:

  • Practice guessing at the smallest next step and ending work on a task before it feels done.
  • Monitor whether you do tasks in order to feel “just right,” not due to what you value.
  • Bring up an attitude of curiosity so that you can learn from the consequences of your decisions and alter your future decisions. This type of learning prevents paralyzing self-criticism and eventually allows you to relax into uncertainty and being a work in progress.

Questions reflect on:

  • In what areas of life do you experience clinical perfectionism?
  • In what ways does clinical perfectionism undermine your performance?
  • What part of your clinical perfectionism is hardest to challenge?
  • If you didn’t experience clinical perfectionism, what would different about the way you approach the relevant tasks or goals?

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