What keeps perfectionism going?

One of the first steps to tackling perfectionism is to understand the personal mechanisms which keep perfectionism in play. Exploring your maintenance cycle might at first seem unnecessary, particularly because you might hold a strong feeling that perfectionism is part of your personality and is something innate in you. This may very well feel true because you have been living with your perfectionism for so long and cannot remember a time before it. This does not, however, mean your perfectionism is without a root cause which can in itself be changed. 

The last session explored what areas of your life are impacted by perfectionism. Today's session is about understanding how perfectionism impacts those areas, how it plays into the way you think, and how it affects your behaviour. 

Treatments which have the most success are those that tackle what is keeping the problem going in the here-and-now, rather than those that look backwards in search of causes. Of course, later on it is important to take a step back and think about factors that may have contributed to the onset of perfectionism so that you can be mindful of them and try not to go back into old perfectionist ways. 

Exploring your perfectionism will be done through the use of a diagram which you are going to draw. This diagram is a collection of ideas about the main features of perfectionism and how they fit together. As you continue through these sessions, your diagram might change and evolve as new information and features are added. 

Example of maintenance cycle

To give you an idea of how a maintenance cycle looks, read the following example about James.

James, a 32 year old male, had always been a procrastinator. He always put off tasks until the very last minute, though he almost always did the task in the end. He wasn't overly distressed by his procrastination, although he acknowledged that it was very frustrating for those around him. No matter how small the task -for example, replying to a wedding invitation- James would only do it at the very last minute. He was clear about his reasons for procrastinating: he believed that if he started the task earlier, then he would check he had done it properly and go over it repeatedly right until the deadline anyway. Doing things at the last minute was a way for him to cope with his perfectionism. Although he believed "a job worth doing, was a job worth doing well", because he always left things to the last minute he often did not do well in tasks or made simple mistakes (e.g. returning the wedding invitation without a stamp). He was in a role at work which placed few demands on him as he didn't want the pressure and stress of having to achieve. Although part of him felt that he was not living up to his potential, another part was realistic in acknowledging that it would cause him too much stress to take on a more responsible role. 

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Here's another example about Catherine.

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Catherine is a 20 year old ex-student of the University of Cambridge. She was having a year away from her studies because she was finding it difficult to cope with the workload. She had always got top marks in her studies and had won prizes for creative writing as well. Whatever she set her mind to, she achieved. She derived some pleasure from her achievements, but it was usually short-lived as she went over situations in her head and found faults with herself. Her primary difficulty with university was that she was unable to complete all the reading that was required for her course. At school, she had worked most nights and weekends and had managed to get the work done although it meant she rarely went to parties and had few friends., At university, despite working as hard as possible, she could not complete the reading list. Her university had tried to help her by telling her that she did not need to read everything, but she felt unable to start writing until her reading was complete. After three or four months of problems with eating and not sleeping due to work, she went to her GP for some tablets to help with her low mood, anxiety, and feeling that her life was out of her control.