Mental Health in 500 Words or Less: Perfectionism and the Power of Thinking Small(er)

As someone who consults with lots of people looking to start therapy, perfectionism might be the most common affliction I’ve been hearing as of late – especially amongst school-aged kids.

I like author Sharon Martin’s conceptualization of perfectionism as “the quest to be without flaws.” Mental cobwebs lurking deep within the perfectionistic mind include as sky-high standards, a deep desire to be liked and – perhaps most insidiously – a faulty belief that conflates achievement with worth. Perfectionism thrives in comfort zones, and continues to gain steam when one sticks to only tasks and activities they are already good at.

Perfectionism is a type of cognitive distortion called call all-or-nothing thinking, a way of interpreting the world that tends to encourage the development of depressed and anxious moods. This might look like someone not even studying for an exam due to a fear of not getting an A+.

Even as a grad student studying mental health, my knowledge on the topic doesn’t exempt me. Within the past year, I’ve found myself needlessly ruminating on papers and projects. John and Michele turned the Blueprint blog over to me back in July, literally letting me do whatever I wanted with it – a writer’s heaven! Since then, I’ve published all of ONE article, with a growing graveyard of half-written ramblings on my laptop that I can barely make sense of when I read them back.

So what’s happening here? Admittedly, sky-high standards I didn’t even realize I had imposed on myself were playing a significant role. As someone who has always valued writing and creative expression, somewhere in the back of my mind was the idea that anything I wrote needed to flawlessly synthesize clinical expertise beyond my own years with the literary prowess of Hunter S. Thompson – the execution of which would somehow demonstrate my worth as a future clinician. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

So what do we do when we find ourselves trapped in a perfectionistic death loop?

For one, start by thinking smaller. Lower the bar. Readjust the goal posts. Whichever metaphor works for you. Guarantee yourself a win and redefine the word “win” if you need. For me, that meant setting one very strategic boundary with myself so I’m able to move forward.

This is where the idea for “Mental health in 500 words or less” was born. No more battles with blank pages and blinking cursors. No more taping up my fingers to go to war with a keyboard. Just flow, simplicity, and sustainability. And I actually FINISHED an article!

Is it perfect? Hell no! Did I explore every nook and cranny of perfectionism the way I wanted to? Not even close. And that’s totally okay! For me, I’m just digging the satisfaction that comes along with having made something.

So, if you suspect perfectionism might be hold you back in life, don’t be afraid to make friends with fear, embrace averageness, and take pride in the progress we make with daily steps forward.

See you on the next consult!

References, Inspirations, and Recommended Reading:

Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. William Morrow.

Martin, S. (2019). CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Practical Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Find Balance, and Reclaim Your Self-Worth (1st ed.). New Harbinger Publications.

Rutherford, R. M., PhD, & Marshall, J. (2019). Perfectly Hidden Depression: How to Break Free from the Perfectionism That Masks Your Depression. New Harbinger Publications.

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