Do Your Best, Just Don’t Hurt Yourself

On a semi-regular…er, once a week or so… basis, one of many clients will refer to me as a hypocrite. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. I’ve had weeks when I’ve worked six days straight. I have been known to drink too much coffee in order to offset lack of sleep. And I can be very focused on removing those little fringes from torn sheets of notebook paper.

Here’s the thing. I am a happy person, I have self-esteem, I love my family, I love my little spot in suburbia, and I love my job. People who end up in my office have some combination of unhappy, worthless core beliefs, self-injury, have difficulty forming valued relationships, feel disconnected, hate others, cling to others, restrict their eating, are anxious, and yes I could continue.

Perfectionism is almost like a cute beauty mark with a biopsy indicating it’s a malignant tumor in need of treatment. Fine on the surface while it festers, but eventually it’s going to become blatantly obvious to everyone it’s a problem. The plus to perfectionism is that treatment is more about hanging on to what works – such as achievement – and learning to let go of what doesn’t work – harsh self-appraisal, self-punishment, etc.

So when is perfectionism helpful?

When it’s adaptive perfectionism (some researchers refer to it as conscientiousness). Adaptive perfectionism is all of that great perfectionism you know and love – grades, promotions, goals, beauty, “doing the right thing,” competitive spirit, sense of accomplishment, and more – without all of the self-loathing, insecurity, and at times life-threatening behavior. We call that stuff maladaptive perfectionism.

How does you know when you’re engaging in adaptive vs maladaptive perfectionism?

One being able to accept disappointment if things do not go as planned, and not viewing these events as some sort of confirmation of inferiority. Maybe the Easter ham was overcooked. Maybe you failed an exam. Maybe you bought the wrong socks for your partner. It happens.

Another is something I’ve seen in my practice is how perfectionists motivate themselves. It often has a moral tone to it. Recurrent themes include a sense of responsibility to others (and objects in those with Hoarding Disorder) and being worthwhile to friends, family, or peers. People may criticize themselves or ritualistically engage in self-injury in order to punish themselves when they do not meet their very high standards. Those engaging in adaptive perfectionism do not do this or are at least in the process of challenging these thoughts and behaviors when they occur. They use more positive reinforcement with themselves, such as tangible rewards for a job well done or use of cheerleading statements.

Ultimately, adaptive perfectionism meets the goals of perfectionism: being the best possible and feeling good about it. Perfectionism can be broken down into subcategories, which is for another blog post.

I’m sold on the idea of adaptive perfectionism, but I’m skeptical about my ability to change.

Which is normal. The plus is that Cognitive Behavior Therapy, CBT for short (That therapy the dusting, straightening yours truly uses), is helpful for maladaptive perfectionism. CBT teaches perfectionists to challenge their thinking, practice self-kindness, and improve efficiency.

Another promising treatment is Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or RO-DBT for short. It isn’t widespread, though that will likely change when more clinicians are trained.

Alright, I will give it a shot.

Contact Cortney Modelewski at 269-389-0402 or cortney@cortneymodelewski.com

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