“Perfectionism destroys the creativity necessary for achievement.”
Perfectionism gets in the way of productivity, especially when creativity is an essential part of your work. Those who call themselves perfectionists undoubtably disagree. However, in reality, struggling with perfectionism means that fewer projects are endeavoured. This comes with an increasing sense of failure for not accomplishing what is desired.
Using techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, perfectionism can be effectively managed. CBT provides an effective set of protocols promoted by Positive Health Psychology. We suggest a comprehensive three-step process for obliterating perfectionism, by utilizing an honest self-assessment, the Triple Column Technique by Dr. David Burns, followed by an evaluation of self-identified outcomes.
Defining Maladaptive Perfectionism
The definition of perfectionism is rather tricky to nail down. It is helpful to use a clinical definition for guidance. The Centre for Clinical Interventions defines perfectionism in three parts:
- You show a relentless striving for extremely high standards.
- Your ability to strive is largely tied to self-worth.
- Even when you experience negative consequences from setting extremely high standards, you continue to reach for them.
Some research indicates (although there remains a great deal of debate) that self-driven perfectionism (such as in professional athletics), is considered adaptive. This type is also easily identified by a strong sense of personal-standards. However, the maladaptive form shows no limits for self-criticism. Standards in this case appear to be socially prescribed, meaning the individual experiences a strong sense of fear of failure from perceived expectations by society. This can result in isolation, depression, and even suicide.
How Perfectionism Destroys Creativity
The primary challenge is one of negative self-evaluation from a sense of failure, to initiate the steps necessary for achievement. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle that leads to the eventual walking-way from creative projects. This is often seen in professionals that have experienced a degree of success. Launching a new project feels impossible up against what has previously been accomplished. The very act of creating, the act that launched your creative career in the beginning, is lost.
Thus, perfectionism hampers creativity in three primary ways:
- You dream big, only attaching yourself to the end result (e.g., photo exhibition). The more you think about the goal, the more anxious you become. You struggle with motivation.
- Dreams pile up. As new creative projects are dreamt, initiated and abandoned, the very act of dreaming triggers a strong sense of failure. Thus, over time it becomes easier to never start.
- You now doubt your inherent ability to initiate a new projection because there is no work to show for it.
Three Steps to Obliterate Perfectionism
By now, you feel so beaten down that you find it difficult to start anything. This has effected your self-worth to such a degree that you are starting to experience a sense of dysphoria about life in general. This maladaptive form of perfectionism is harmful.
At Finding My Psych, we encourage you to walk through three steps designed to take control of your need for perfection. We are going to cover each today:
- Map symptoms using the CHANGES model.
- Understand common cognitive distortions using the Triple Column Technique.
- Evaluate the outcome.
–> Step 1: Do an Assessment of Symptoms Using The CHANGES Model
The CHANGES model was created by Dr. David Christian at Utah Stat University. It is a biopsychosocial (holistic) approach to understanding challenges and has been show effective in the treatment of depression, anxiety, obesity, and panic. It helps individuals map the current state upon initial assessment, treatment planning, and progress through care.
Let’s start by defining each element of the CHANGES Model. As you progress through each element, you will notice the interdependent nature of each and how they work together:
C – Cognition: Well established patterns of thoughts lead to emotional states. What we think, we become.
H – Health: There are physiological reactions to the patterns we participate in, whether from thoughts, behaviours, or the people we spend time with. Poor health outcomes are a particularly clear form of feedback that something is not going well.
A – Actions: We participate in a range of behaviours that either support or work against the challenges we face in life. The maladaptive behavioural choices we make are often indicative of underlying problems.
N – eNvironment: Our physical surroundings have an impact on our state of being. Understanding this relationship is important in mapping future direction.
G – Goals: It is important to consider both long-term and short-term goals when mapping change. We often make the mistake of only focusing on the broader outcomes.
E – Emotions: Consider emotions your primary source of feedback about how well, or not, things are going. While the other elements can be adjusted as part of a future focused plan, emotions are typically the result of interacting dynamics between other parts of the CHANGES model.
S – Social Environment: The people in our life matter. They often respond to the challenges we face by providing support, or encouraging ongoing decline.
Now, let’s map perfectionism using the CHANGES model. By doing a quick sketch of your own experience of each element as someone who struggles with perfectionism, you are creating a roadmap towards a more adaptive self.
C – “I tend to think in a very black and white way. I see myself as either a success or failure.”
H – “My stomach bothers me a lot lately. I think I have nervous bowels.”
A – “I have not been leaving the house much lately. I lack any desire to engage with people. I mean, what’s the point?”
N – “I normally keep good care of my apartment. Not now….I just don’t care most of the time if it is messy.”
G – “Goals? Are you kidding me? I don’t bother starting what I know I will fail at.”
E – “I think I’m depressed. Im just not excited about anything anymore.”
S – “My best friend said I have become unbearable to be around. I wish I knew what he meant!”
From this, it is clear how easy it is to map the effects of maladaptive (clinical) perfectionism. From here, your therapist will often ask what element you want to start working on. That is a very good question, because it is entirely up to you! We suggest you start with C – Cognitions. This is where perfectionism was given birth and continues to thrive. Step 2 will walk you through what you need to do next.
–> Step 2: Shift Your Thinking Using The Triple Column Technique
The evidence is rather clear. CBT has been shown to be an effective tool for treating perfectionism. In order to understand this fully, it is important to identify the common cognitive distortions seen in those suffering from perfectionism. This is accomplished by using the Triple Column Technique by Dr. David Burns.
In order to put the Triple Column Technique to work, we advise that you do the following exercise. It might be helpful if you download the Triple Column Technique PDF by clicking on the image below. It will help you with the example we are now going to walk you through. The PDF also has detailed definitions of each step and distortion:
- Write down your negative thoughts. For the perfectionist, this might be, “What’s the use in starting. I know I can’t get an A+, so whats the point?” Or, “I can’t believe my professor didn’t appreciate my photo project. I’m a total failure! I will never be a successful photographer.”
- Second, try to identify the distortion in each sentence. Perfectionists commonly use All or Nothing Thinking, Labeling, and Overgeneralization. The second sentence has two of these. Can you identify them?
- Replace your negative thoughts by eliminating the distortion in each sentence with a rational response. In the second sentence, you might change that to, “My professor didn’t say much about my photos tonight. I wonder what he thinks. I am really proud of my work – My images keep getting better and better! I think I am going to go ask him directly.”
The Triple Column Technique is very effective at building awareness and replacing thoughts that cause us problems. It should be noted that we all use cognitive distortions from time-to-time. Distortions only become problematic when used regularly.
–> Step 3: Measure The Outcome
Okay! We are almost there! If you fully understood Step 1 and Step 2, consider yourself a CBT Ninja Master! The final step involves looking back at the CHANGES model to see if you can identify any outcome measures to watch over time. As you replace your negative thoughts for rational ones, you will notice improvements. It is important to agree on what improvements matter to you.
For instance, one simple measure might be taking inventory of how your gut feels throughout the day. Is your gut feeling better over time? You also mentioned above that your mood has been rather low. Do you notice any improvement? Most individuals will notice that their anxiety and mood symptoms improve as you continue to practice. However, if symptoms get worse, consider working with a mental health professional who specializes in CBT. If anything, that should be considered before launching this method on your own.
A Final Note
Perfection stifles creativity. Whether you are an engineer, or a professional photographer, every endeavour starts with a creative process. Unfortunately, society promotes perfection in advertising, schools, and the workplace. While some may argue that this has improved over time, knowing that there are less seats at the table in society, promotes achievement designed only for survival. This is where perfectionism has her strong hold.