What associations come to mind when you hear the phrase “good enough”? – Mediocre? Could be better? Not actually good enough? For a perfectionist, good enough is not .. well, good enough. Perfectionists are people who set very high standards for themselves in one or several areas of their lives (some examples: work, eating, tidiness, punctuality, social life, grades, sports .. etc, etc.). OK, you might say, so what is the problem here? Well, first of all, no-one is able to be perfect all the time. Sure, you might get an A for a test, and you might in fact get As most of the time, but what happens if you get a B? How would you respond to that situation? This is where we will start exploring perfectionism. We will also look at why perfectionism can lead to procrastination and loss of motivation, and what we can do to change things if we think we are being perfectionist about one or more aspects of our lives.
So let’s start with getting that B on a test. For our perfectionist (let’s call her Annie), a B instead of an A is failure. In fact, implicitly, Annie has made a rule for herself that says that she has to get As on all her tests. When this rule is broken, she gets really angry and frustrated – not with the teacher who graded her test, but with herself for being such a lousy student. OK, let’s pause here for a second. Find a pen and something to scribble on. Now ask yourself: Which, if any, rules do I have for myself about how I should do things? Write down anything that comes to mind, big or small. Then carry on reading – you will need your notes at the end.
Right, back to Annie. She feels awful about getting a B. Why? Because this B tells her she’s not good enough – her identity as an A student is threatened by it. Unless she is a “perfect student”, she is not Annie. Therefore, she criticises herself and is determined to get an A on her next test to keep the threat of “not being an A student/a failure” at bay. The fear of another B drives her to study even harder, and she starts spending less time doing things that are good for her, like meeting friends and playing football, in order to make sure she gets a perfect score on all her tests for the rest of the year. This leaves her feeling stressed, tired and lonely.
What is going on here? According to the cognitive behavioral model of perfectionism, which Vanessa Skinner from the University Counselling Service presented to us at the workshop, Annie’s identity and self-worth are tied to and dependent on striving and academic performance. She sets sky high standards for herself: “Either I get an A or it doesn’t matter”, “I must work as hard as I can”, “I can’t enjoy myself until I’ve finished all my work”.. Perfectionist rules like these are characterized by being very harsh, general, absolute and inflexible. What is the danger of having a lot of very general, extreme rules like these? Well, for one thing they are easily broken. Having rules like these can therefore lead to a lot of self-criticism and pushing oneself even harder to meet the standards. And even if the standards are met the perfectionist will be much less likely to feel good about her work: after all, she’s only done what was expected, nothing more.
Furthermore, these rules can be said to have a threatening tone to them, which is an important clue as to why the perfectionist might eventually “burn out” and lose her motivation altogether. Annie’s rules definitely have a threatening tone: “Either I get an A, or else …”. What does this mean for Annie? Basically, she ends up studying so hard because she is afraid of not being good enough – she feels threatened by the prospect of a B. Why? Because her identity is “the A student”, and a B is a threat to that. Hence, we see that a perfectionist ends up being in “threat mode” a lot of the time. For our brain, a threat is a threat no matter whether we’re being chased by a lion or mentally chased by an imperfect grade. Activation of the threat system (also known as the “fight-or-flight” system), leads to increased levels of stress hormones in the blood, preparing us to respond to the dangerous situation. Except in Annie’s case, the situation is not that a lion is coming after her, but that she might get a B on her next test, too..
So what does being in threat mode have to do with loss of motivation? One explanation comes from applying Paul Gilbert’s emotional regulation theory to perfectionism. Here is a schematic overview of the theory:
Annie used to love studying because she found it so interesting to learn new things and to explore. In other words, her academic achievements used to be fuelled by her drive (blue) system. But gradually, the threat (red) system began to take over, as she started to become increasingly dependent on being a good student in order to feel good about herself. Thus, schoolwork started to become an exercise in not failing to meet her high standards (red) rather than about enjoying herself while doing the work (blue). Do you see how this could lead her to lose her motivation and “drive”?
According to Vanessa’s explanation, Annie’s red mode has started to dominate as she gets increasingly scared of failing, which also upregulates her blue mode initially – she starts working harder, but at the expense of doing fun and relaxing things. This means she rarely finds herself in the soothing (green) mode, where she is able to restore her energy and relax. If she goes on like this, she will become more and more tired and unhappy, eventually becoming exhausted and overwhelmed. At this point, the blue mode shrinks down, whereas the green mode is upregulated in the form of procrastination (Netflix/alcohol/chocolate/etc.) and starts “overlapping” with the red mode as these things are essentially behaviours whose function are to avoid doing work because it feels too overwhelming (i.e. threatening). This explains why perfectionists can end up losing their motivation and fall into the procrastination trap.
So what’s the alternative, then? After all, studying hard and getting As is not necessarily a bad thing.. Indeed, that is probably how you got into Cambridge! But wouldn’t it be nice if you could do well academically without the constant fear of failing as your driving force? According to Vanessa, this means that you will have to let go of your rigid rule system and replace it with something more flexible and less threatening. Basically, you need to 1) train yourself to talk to yourself with more compassion in order to activate your green mode (like you would talk to a good friend) and 2) try to modify the strict rules you have set for yourself so that they sound more flexible and positive in order to activate your blue mode. The idea is to break the vicious cycle of strict rule –> breaking of rule –> self-criticism by working from “both ends”: changing the rules and changing how you talk to yourself if you break them. This is where you’ll need to have a look at the rules you (hopefully) wrote down when you started reading this. (Alternatively, you could pause here for a second to jot something down.)
First, let’s see how we could change Annie’s rule about always having to get As. How could we make it sound less harsh/threatening, and more positive and drive-oriented? How could we make it less absolute and more flexible?
“I’d like to do get perfect grades.” (This is less threatening, but still quite general and has the word “perfect” in it!)
“It would be great to get a good grade when I’ve worked hard for it.” (This is more drive-based – it is still about achieving, but in a positive and rewarding way.)
“I love to learn, and a good grade is one of the signs that I’ve learned a lot of new things.” (This shifts the focus from the grade to the learning process, and the “one of” is a sign of flexibility.)
Right, now it’s your turn to have a go. When modifying a rule, here are some key points to keep in mind:
- It’s good if your new “rule” sounds more like a principle or a preference than a command – something you aspire to do, but not something that you have to, should or must always do. In fact, the less it sounds like a rule, the better!
- Try to use “vitality-inspired language” to phrase your rules: “It would be great to..”, “I’d love it if I..”, “I’d like to..”, etc.
- Instead of making another general and absolute rule that is easily broken, it is more useful and sustainable to make a rule that is flexible/can be adapted depending on context.
And finally, as Vanessa said, making a new “rule” is like buying a new pair of shoes – you might want to try them on for fit and, if they don’t feel comfortable enough then you should probably change them for a different pair. Old and well-worn shoes are often the best ones, though, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to replace an old, well-worn rule with a shiny new one! It is definitely easier said than done, but it is possible to make changes. And while you are on your journey towards a less threat-based and more vital way of approaching work and life in general, please remember to try and be your own best friend and to try not to criticise yourself. Say it to yourself: You can do it, but you’re not a bad person if you can’t.
Written by Heidi Solberg Økland