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Removing the Shackles of Perfectionism


When it comes to carrying out specific tasks or making decisions, those with perfectionist tendencies can be prone to engaging in demands about themselves and others:

“ My work/decisions must always be 100% accurate... or else…”

“My team must never see me put in a less than perfect performance...or else…”

“They must follow my exact instructions, they should do it my way... or else….”

Perfectionists are prone to fret about what may happen if things don’t go as planned:

“What if…I make a mistake/say something inaccurate/make the wrong decision…”

The ‘or else’ and ‘what if’ is typically linked with assumptions and beliefs about potential consequences of getting things wrong. Common types of assumptions and beliefs include:

Mind Reading

…they will think I’m completely useless; everyone will think I am an incompetent leader

Fortune Telling

…I’ll never be asked to do it again; it will all go wrong; I’ll lose my job

Catastrophising

…it will be a disaster, it will be absolutely awful

All or Nothing Thinking

…it’s not worth doing; I’d rather not do it at all if its not going to be perfect

Do you recognise any of these demands and beliefs in your own patterns of thinking?

How useful are these types of thinking in helping you to perform as you’d like in your work and home life? My guess would be ‘not very’, right?!

In the cognitive behavioural approach to behavior change these types of thoughts are often referred to as cognitive distortions, thinking errors, or unhelpful thinking habits. With my clients I use the term Performance Interfering Thoughts (PITs). When my clients are stuck in patterns of behaviour affecting their performance and/or wellbeing we explore together the PITs that are holding them back.

Becoming aware of your PITs is powerful in itself and the first part of the journey to removing the shackles of perfectionism.

Using Socratic questioning clients are encouraged to consider the evidence, logic and helpfulness of their PITs. They are facilitated in recognising how their PITs are influencing their behavior and emotions. They are then facilitated in considering what would be more helpful ways of thinking about a situation and coming up with Performance Enhancing Thoughts (PETs) to help them take a different perspective.

The approach is based on the ABCDE framework from Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), developed by Albert Ellis (see the example case study below)

An example of how this might look is illustrated via the link below, capturing the experience of Lesley, a senior manager who has issues with presentations. Lesley is required to deliver more presentations as part of their new senior role but is tending to avoid them for fear of not being perfect and being negatively appraised by colleagues and clients. The example involves a coach supporting Lesley through the process to identify PITs and develop PETs. This process can also be used for self-coaching.

Click to see the table illustrating how Lesley used cognitive reframing to turn PITs into PETs

Lesley's fears about not being perfect and being negatively appraised by others are based on unhelpful thinking habits. These habits can be deeply embedded and are not adapted overnight. It takes a great deal of commitment to practicing new ways of thinking (PETs) so that they become habitual. John Anderson describes a case study with seven executives where he used this approach to help them overcome issues with perfectionism, self-worth, and frustration tolerance, which were causing problems with delegating, decision-making, and relationships (at work and home). He emphasises that the approach is not a quick fix and requires a lot of practice but can be transformational. Hence, it might take some time, but being committed to working with your PITs and PETs can really help you remove the shackles of perfectionism that currently prevent you from enjoying the benefits of great performance and wellbeing.

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