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Alcohol and Mental Health

How To Overcome Perfectionism (According to Research)

September 20, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 20, 2023
18 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 20, 2023
18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 20, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 20, 2023
18 min read

Picture an office space with dimmed lights, the clock ticking closer to midnight, and Angela still hunched over her computer. Her big presentation is tomorrow, and she has been tweaking a single slide for hours, unsatisfied. Even though colleagues praised her work, Angela can't shake the thought that it's just not perfect. She wonders: “When is good enough actually enough?”

It's an enduring question, often raised by perfectionists. There's more to perfectionism than just being a diligent worker or detail-oriented: it's a cognitive pattern that can hinder progress in multiple areas, from personal relationships to behavioral changes like changing our drinking habits. So, how can Angela — and others like her — rein in this impulse? Science offers some compelling answers.

Perfectionism: What Is It, What Causes It, and Why It’s Not Always Perfect

Perfectionism is often mistakenly viewed as an admirable trait that fuels ambition, meticulousness, and high achievement. However, perfectionism isn’t simply about having high standards or an unwavering commitment to excellence. 

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism manifests in various ways across different life domains, including work, relationships, or personal endeavors. It often involves setting unreasonably high standards for ourselves and for others, resulting in dissatisfaction even when we’re performing well. This drive comes from an underlying fear of failure, harsh self-judgment, or an acute sensitivity to others’ evaluations.

Factors Contributing to Perfectionism

The origins of perfectionism are multifaceted, often stemming from a combination of genetic predispositions and environmental influences. Research points to certain personality traits such as conscientiousness and neuroticism as potential predisposing factors. Environmentally, many perfectionists report having grown up in households where high standards were expected and reinforced. Cultural factors also come into play, with some societies placing a greater emphasis on achievement, competition, and social comparison, which can foster perfectionistic tendencies.

Perfectionism: The Long-Term Impact

While being a perfectionist can drive us to accomplish certain goals, the long-term effects can be debilitating. One significant impact is on mental health. A meta-analysis has shown that perfectionism is positively correlated with depression, anxiety, and stress. Moreover, it can be a risk factor for more severe psychological disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders.

The physical toll is equally alarming. The constant stress and anxiety that often accompany perfectionism can lead to a host of health issues, including insomnia, digestive problems, and even cardiovascular diseases. Relationships also suffer. A perfectionist's constant striving for flawlessness can create unrealistic expectations in relationships, leading to dissatisfaction, conflict, and, eventually, emotional detachment.

On the career front, the fear of making a mistake can cause paralysis, preventing us from taking risks that are often necessary for growth and innovation. Ironically, the very pursuit of perfection can result in underachievement. Finally, perfectionism can hamper creativity and adaptability — a liability in both professional and personal spheres.

By understanding what perfectionism is, the factors that contribute to it, and its long-term consequences, it’s easier to grasp the urgency of addressing this complex trait. While achieving perfection may seem like an alluring goal, the pursuit can exact a heavy toll. Luckily, awareness is the first step toward making meaningful change.

Perfectionism in Sobriety or Alcohol Reduction

It's day 30 without a drink, and Mark is celebrating by attending a support group. In the group circle, he shares how he's eliminated alcohol, attended daily gym sessions, and read two self-help books — all within the month. Applause erupts. Yet inside, Mark feels like a fraud. One hiccup, one moment of weakness, he thinks, and all this "perfection" will crumble.

The Science of Perfectionism and Alcohol Misuse Recovery

Research highlights the intricate relationship between perfectionism and recovery from issues such as alcohol misuse. The pursuit of flawlessness can both propel and hinder our journey to sobriety or mindful drinking. On the positive side, a perfectionist’s tendency to set high goals can lead to dedicated efforts to let go of an unwanted, unhealthy habit. We may be driven by the fear of failing to meet our internalized standards of excellence, which can act as a powerful motivator. The problem arises, however, when those standards are unattainable.

Studies reveal that perfectionism is linked with higher levels of stress and increased susceptibility to depression, both of which are factors that can contribute to relapse in alcohol misuse recovery. When perfectionists don’t achieve their goals — in this case, moderation or sobriety, or a string of “perfect” days — they tend to engage in negative self-evaluation, which exacerbates the stress and depressive symptoms that may have contributed to the alcohol misuse in the first place.

The Fear of Imperfection

Perfectionism instills a fear of making mistakes, a notion incompatible with the process of alcohol misuse recovery, which often involves relapses and setbacks. At Reframe, we celebrate progress rather than perfection, encouraging users to embrace mistakes as a natural part of the healing journey. However, for a perfectionist, even a minor slip-up can feel like a monumental failure, sparking a vicious cycle of shame, guilt, and even the abandonment of recovery efforts.

The Self-Imposed Pressures

The self-imposed pressures of perfectionism can lead to "paralysis by analysis." In this state, a person becomes so consumed by the details, by the quest for the "perfect recovery," that they become paralyzed — unable to make decisions or progress further. The perfectionist's all-or-nothing mindset can mean that anything less than complete success feels like utter defeat. It's a mental trap that can sap the joy out of accomplishments, turning even a 30-day sobriety milestone into a source of anxiety.

Emotional Cost and Relational Strain

The emotional toll of perfectionism in changing our drinking habits is also worth noting. Constantly striving for an unattainable ideal can lead to emotional exhaustion. This heightened emotional state can additionally stress relationships with family and friends that might already be strained due to the prior drinking behaviors.

Redefining Success in Recovery

So what’s the solution? We need to redefine success in the context of recovery. Success doesn’t have to mean a perfect scorecard; it could be measured by the ability to learn from mistakes, or by the strength it takes to continue the journey despite setbacks. Changing our drinking habits, in the long run, is less about the destination and more about the ongoing process — a concept that can be difficult for perfectionists to internalize, but one that’s crucial for sustainable recovery.

Overcoming Perfectionism: Science-Backed Strategies

So, what's the playbook for breaking free from perfectionism? Being proactive can make all the difference! Here's a deeper dive into some actionable strategies.

1. Set Realistic Goals: Less Is More

Unrealistic standards are the bane of a perfectionist's existence, often leading to discouragement and inaction. The solution is setting achievable, realistic goals. Start small and build from there. Take exercise, for instance: instead of aiming for an hour of high-intensity interval training daily, why not start with 20 minutes of low-impact exercise, three times a week? Gradually increasing the intensity and duration can make the endeavor more sustainable, while still contributing to our physical well-being.

Setting realistic goals also involves breaking larger tasks into manageable steps. Facing a colossal project at work? Break it down into smaller tasks and deadlines. This step-by-step approach both makes the project less daunting and provides multiple opportunities for small victories along the way, boosting morale and motivation.

2. Accept Imperfections: The “Good Enough” Philosophy

The maxim "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" rings particularly true for perfectionists. Adopting a "good enough" philosophy can work wonders. For instance, instead of spending hours honing and revising a single email, allocate a reasonable time limit for its completion. Once the clock hits the set time, press “send,” minor imperfections and all.

The beauty of this approach is its almost universal applicability: it works for everything from house cleaning to preparing presentations. It's not a call for mediocrity, just a rational, time-efficient way to complete tasks satisfactorily. This approach allows for a better work-life balance and reduces the unnecessary stress often generated by the quest for perfection. Good enough is good enough.

3. Cultivate Self-Compassion: Be Your Own Best Friend

Often, perfectionists are their harshest critics, subjecting themselves to a level of scrutiny they wouldn't dare impose on others. Self-compassion can be transformative in this regard. One powerful exercise is writing a compassionate letter to ourselves, particularly after a perceived failure or shortcoming.

Self-compassion involves acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes and is fallible — including us! It means treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding that we would offer to a good friend in a similar situation. This perspective shift can be incredibly freeing, reducing the emotional weight of setbacks and failures.

4. Take Mindfulness Breaks: A Moment To Pause

Weaving mindfulness into daily life can be revolutionary for anyone caught in the web of perfectionism. Mindfulness meditation is no esoteric concept; it’s a simple, pragmatic practice. Commit to setting aside five minutes each day to focus on breathing patterns and bodily sensations.

This brief mindfulness break helps to cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, creating a space between us and our habitual thought patterns. It provides an opportunity to recognize perfectionist tendencies as they arise and to choose a different response, one of acceptance and calm. As this practice becomes habitual, its positive impacts often spill over into other areas of life, promoting a more balanced approach to tasks and challenges.

5. Restructure Cognitive Distortions: The Power of Nuanced Thinking

Cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking, feed perfectionist attitudes. In this mindset, anything less than perfect becomes synonymous with failure. One way to dismantle this destructive thought pattern is by rephrasing the internal dialogue. Instead of repeating phrases like "I must be perfect," opt for healthier alternatives like "I aim to do my best" or "Progress, not perfection."

Learning to see life and its myriad challenges on a spectrum rather than as binary outcomes (success or failure, good or bad) opens up a middle ground where most real-world results actually occur. With this more-nuanced understanding, setbacks become opportunities for growth, and “failures” transform into stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks.

6. Seek Professional Help: When To Call in the Experts

Some people find that perfectionism is so deeply rooted that tackling it alone is nearly impossible. In such cases, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven effective in treating perfectionism. This form of therapy helps identify negative thought patterns and offers strategies to change these into more positive and constructive ways of thinking.

CBT provides tools for managing anxiety and stress that often accompany perfectionism, offering a structured framework for sustainable change. It’s like hiring a personal trainer for mental health: yes, we can work out alone, but the expertise and structured guidance of a professional often yield quicker and more sustainable results.

7. Celebrate Small Wins: The Joy of Incremental Progress

Celebrating small wins may sound trivial, but it’s a powerful method to rewire the brain’s reward system. Whether it's meeting a sub-goal on a big project or making the conscious decision to embrace an imperfection, each small win deserves acknowledgment. Positive reinforcement can involve anything from taking a leisurely walk, enjoying a favorite treat, or spending time with loved ones. This practice provides both immediate gratification and long-term motivation to continue taking steps in the right direction.

Overcoming Perfectionism: The Freedom To Be Flawed

Living up to our potential doesn't require perfection. Indeed, being good enough is enough. Whether it's the courage to accept that minor errors might remain in a business presentation, or the self-compassion to forgive ourselves after slipping up on a commitment, true freedom lies in the ability to embrace imperfection. Perfectionism might never be entirely eradicated, but it can be managed, tamed, and put in its rightful place.

Adopting these action steps into daily routines offers the promise of a life less encumbered by perfectionism’s debilitating demands. We can create a life in which every moment isn’t an exam to be aced, but an experience to be lived; a life that’s enriched, not impoverished, by our quirks and imperfections. Embracing this more compassionate approach isn't just a win; it's life-changing.

Summary FAQs

1. What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is the psychological disposition to set unrealistically high standards for ourselves and to engage in self-critical evaluations when these standards are not met. While it may drive people to excel, it often leads to stress, anxiety, and a fear of failure.

2. How can setting realistic goals help combat perfectionism?

Setting attainable goals breaks the cycle of unreachable expectations that often paralyzes perfectionists. This approach makes tasks less daunting, provides opportunities for small wins, and ultimately leads to greater motivation and satisfaction.

3. What is the "good enough" philosophy?

The "good enough" philosophy involves completing tasks to a satisfactory standard rather than striving for an elusive "perfect" outcome. This mindset helps improve work-life balance and reduces stress and anxiety related to performance.

4. How can mindfulness help us overcome perfectionism?

Mindfulness meditation can help cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, breaking the cycle of negative, perfectionistic thought patterns. Just five minutes a day focusing on breathing and bodily sensations can make a significant impact.

5. What are cognitive distortions and how do they contribute to perfectionism?

Cognitive distortions are inaccurate or overly generalized thought patterns that contribute to a distorted worldview. In the context of perfectionism, "all-or-nothing" thinking is a common cognitive distortion where tasks are viewed as either a complete success or failure, with no middle ground.

6. When should professional help be considered for tackling perfectionism?

If perfectionistic tendencies severely affect our quality of life, causing chronic stress, anxiety, or depression, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating perfectionism.

7. Why is it important to celebrate small wins?

Acknowledging and celebrating small accomplishments helps rewire the brain's reward system, reinforcing positive behavior. This practice serves as a long-term motivator and helps chip away at the ingrained habits of perfectionism.

Find Balance and Thrive With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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