You may have heard people say something like, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” But what does that mean? It’s a common response to the way that many people focus on perfection in every area, keeping themselves from improving or finishing a project. Although it’s good to strive for quality, perfectionism can stop you from making progress.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a focus on getting every little thing exactly right. It’s a multidimensional condition that can arise from various sources, such as from inside an individual, a family or other group, or larger societal expectations. Perfectionism can be:
- Adaptive, when a person is able to adjust to high standards; or
- Maladaptive, when there is a discrepancy between high standards and a person’s actual behaviors to meet those standards.
It is important to mention family perfectionism, which refers to the perceived perfectionistic expectations one may experience from their family. Research indicates it is common for families to set high — and at times, unrealistic — expectations for their offspring (Wang et al., 2018).
As a result of growing up in a high-pressure environment, individuals from these families tend to internalize those standards and feel guilt or shame if they fail to live up to them. The gap between a family’s expectations and a family member’s ability to fulfill them is a discrepancy.
The development of an individual’s perfectionism may be deeply rooted in parenting styles. In maladaptive perfectionism, parental love was conditional upon one’s achievements, and parents were found to be more critical and controlling, and less encouraging.
Perfectionism Contributes to Guilt and Shame
When talking about perfectionism, we have to address feelings of guilt and shame.
- Guilt is a negative evaluation of one’s own behavior.
- Shame tends to generalize the negative evaluation to the whole self. Research indicates that many international students experience shame, which has also been found to be related to anxiety or depressive symptoms (Wang et al., 2018).
Family perfectionism + high discrepancy = psychological distress (anxiety, depression)
How To Start Addressing Your Perfectionism
- One way to start addressing your perfectionistic tendencies may be to examine your perceptions of meeting or failing to live up to your own or your family’s expectations. Writing down your resulting thoughts and feelings in a journal can offer relief and perspective on the matter.
- Taking steps to build a solid support network with other students who share your background can also be helpful in exploring your sense of connectedness and in finding or forming a community to belong to. An example can be joining a student organization of interest, taking part in international student groups or joining one of the drop-in or identity-based groups at the Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC). Discussions and proposed methods in these groups can help alleviate some feelings of shame.
- Another approach is to recognize and challenge any negative thoughts that relate to internalized high family standards or criticism you may have experienced in the past. Recognizing and challenging automatic thoughts and beliefs can serve as a catalyst to address a discrepancy between family expectations or pressures and your actual achievements.
- Adjusting your own goals and expectations to make sure they are realistic and achievable can mitigate guilt and shame. This can also contribute to lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms that often go unnoticed by students.
If would like help with addressing perfectionism, call CMHC at 512-471-3515 to schedule a session with a counselor.
Dr. Arna Erega, LPC
Diversity, Counseling and Outreach Specialist for International Students
Wang, L., Wong, Y.J., Chung, Y.B. (2018). Family perfectionism, shame, and mental health among Asian American and Asian international emerging adults: Mediating and moderating relationships. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 9 (2), 117-126. doi:10.1037/aap0000098