Does Setting High Goals = Perfectionism?

Emma Johnson, MFTC

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Perfectionism is a term that is lightly tossed around in everyday conversations. Perfectionism can be related to one’s academic performance, work ethic, environment, relationships, etc. But what does it mean to be a perfectionist? Perfectionism is a cognitive distortion that – hold on, what is a cognitive distortion?

A cognitive distortion is an umbrella term used to encompass a variety of irrational thinking patterns. Now back to figuring out what perfectionism is – Perfectionism is a characteristic trait where one believes they must be perfect and furthermore acts to meet this standard of perfection.

What are some of the actual actions that are associated with perfectionism?

Five Common Characteristics Associated with Perfectionism:

  1. Excessive Organizing
    Example: Having to deep clean your bedroom before being able to start your work proposal.
  2. Excessive Checking
    Example. Checking your shirt 10 times to make sure there are no wrinkles.
  3. Difficulty Make Decisions
    Example: Not being able to pick a movie and spending 30 minutes watching trailers before deciding on one.
  4. Trying to Change Other’s Behaviors
    Example: Telling a friend how they should clean their room and re-organize their closet.
  5. Going Overboard
    Example: Having to start over on your handwritten grocery list each time you make a mistake.

So, what if you consider yourself a perfectionist and pride yourself on it? Are there any positives of perfectionism? To find the positives, we need to first remove the negative connotation that is associated with perfectionism and redefine what it is that we think categorizes us as a perfectionist. Perfectionism is frequently tied to setting standards for ourselves, and surely there have got to be some positives to setting self-standards, right?

Some Benefits of Setting High Standards:

  1. Challenging yourself
  2. Being organized and efficient
  3. Having the opportunity to learn new things and achieve new skills
  4. Having a high motivational drive and ability to focus on goals
  5. Having a hard-working mentality

So, when do things turn sour? It is not until people find themselves striving for excellence, or more precisely, perfection, that things may become irrational and problematic.

Downsides of Setting High Standards:

  1. You may become too demanding of yourself or others
  2. You may put unnecessary pressure on yourself
  3. You may feel frequently stressed out or on edge
  4. You might not want to ask for help because you do not trust others to do it the way you want
  5. You may start feeling like a failure and beat yourself up or blame yourself for mistakes when things go wrong
  6. Your goals may become unrealistic and make you feel like even your best efforts are not enough
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Now, take a moment and think about some of the standards you have set for yourself. If you are having difficulty brainstorming, think about times you said something along the lines of “I should….” Or “I have to….” Or “I must….

For each standard you set for yourself, there are consequences. When we hear the word ‘consequence’ we typically think it means something bad happened, and sometimes, this is true, but not always. Negative Consequences decrease the likelihood of an action being repeated or occurring again. Negative consequences are often directly related to the task making it unachievable in the future or adding additional responsibility for not completing it.

Positive Consequences on the other hand, refer to outcomes that encourage the behavior to be repeated and thus increase the likelihood of the action occurring again. Positive consequences usually take the shape of attention, praise, or materialistic rewards.

So, again, think back to some of the standards that you have set for yourself. What are some of the positive consequences and what are some of the negative consequences that come along with those? Which outweighs the other?

Another thing to consider when trying to determine whether your goal setting is healthy or unhealthy is to consider the reality of the standards set. Think about your capability and potential to carry out these tasks. For example, if you set a new standard to help cook dinner for your family 4x a week, but up until this point you have only been cooking one night a week, this standard may be rather unrealistic. Alternatively, you might want to set a standard for yourself such as helping with meal prepping more than once a week.

Recognizing when the goals we set for ourselves are unrealistic and unhealthy can be difficult. While our society encourages striving for excellence it does not always consider personal differences, making it even more challenging to recognize potentially irrational and unrealistic thinking of goal setting.

Setting standards for oneself can be beneficial, however, doing so can easily cross into the zone of unhealthy goal-setting resulting in overworking oneself. When setting standards for yourself it is important to choose only those that are realistic and healthy. It is my hope that reflecting on this post and using the tips below will be helpful setting goals that remain in a safe and healthy zone in the future.

To Set Realistic & Healthy Goals:


• Avoid all-or-nothing thinking
• Avoid “I should” or “I must” statements
• Avoid self-criticism
• Avoid comparing yourself to others
• Allow yourself grace
• Allow mistakes and learn from them
• Practice self-awareness
• Identify limitations/barriers
• Ask for help when feeling overwhelmed
• Personalize your standards and focus on what you want, not what others may want of you

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