As we mentioned above, the problem with many perfectionism behaviours is that they don’t allow us to test out our faulty beliefs. For example, if you continually engage in checking behaviours, you never learn that there wouldn’t be any major consequences if you only checked once. If you constantly ask others for guidance, you never learn that you’d do just as good a job if you made your own decisions.
As such, there comes a point where you need to let go of these behaviours and see what happens. Of course, your mind is probably telling you all kinds of reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t do this. We encourage you to stick with us here and use the cognitive strategies from last week to challenge these unhelpful thoughts. In fact, this skill will help you test your beliefs and make up your own mind about whether or not they are helpful.
A good way to test out your beliefs is to set up a real life experiment. We call these ‘behavioural experiments’. Behavioural experiments are often helpful for challenging perfectionistic beliefs and behaviours. They involve choosing an unhelpful belief, developing an experiment to test the belief (which involves changing the ‘target’ perfectionism behaviour), and adjusting the belief based on the outcome of the experiment.
For example, Margaret holds the belief,“If I speak up, I’ll say the wrong thing and people will laugh”. This leads her to stay quiet and avoid answering questions at work. To target this behaviour, Margaret could set up a behavioural experiment. She could answer a question or contribute something every meeting and record the reactions of her colleagues. At the end, she could evaluate the data to see how many times she said the ‘wrong’ thing and how many times people laughed.
As another example, Bill believes “If I don’t work all the time, I’ll fail”. As a result, he overworks and has very little time for rest and relaxation. This impacts the quality of his sleep and his relationship with his wife. Bill could set up a behavioural experiment where he limits his work hours and finishes up by 8pm. He could then record his level of anxiety and whether he still meets his deadlines on time.
Behavioural experiments can be done with both ‘excess’ and ‘avoidance’ behaviours. As a general rule, experiments for excess behaviours will involve reducing the behaviour (e.g., less time, less checking etc.). Whereas, experiments for avoidance behaviours will often involve doing more of the avoided behaviour (e.g., approaching challenges, relaxing more etc.).
How to carry out a behavioural experiment:
Step 1: Identify the unhelpful belief you want to test
- “If I make mistakes, people will reject me”.
Step 2: Plan an experiment to test your belief. Be specific regarding when, where and how you’ll test it out.
- I’ll make dinner for friends and slightly overcook the dessert. I’ll then invite them back the following week and see what they say.
Step 3: Make a prediction about the outcome of the experiment and rate how strongly you believe it (0 to 100)
- My friends will notice that I’ve overcooked the dessert. They’ll be disgusted and won’t want to come for dinner again. My belief rating is 95%.
Step 3: Implement the experiment.
- I served a cake for dessert that was overcooked. At the end of the meal, I invited everyone back for dinner the following week.
Step 4: Review what happened during the experiment.
- No one seemed to notice that the cake was overcooked. No one said anything bad. In fact, everyone actually commented that they enjoyed the meal. Everyone accepted the invitation for dinner again next week. I relaxed after this and enjoyed the rest of the evening.
Step 5: What did you learn from the experiment? Was your predicted outcome accurate? Re-rate your belief in the original prediction.
- My anxiety came down after I realised no one seemed to care about the cake. Perhaps my friends aren’t critiquing my cooking as much as I thought they were. It seems they’re more interested in spending time with me than they are in the food. My original prediction was too extreme (new belief rating 5%).
Step 6: Compare your prediction with what actually happened and write down an alternative belief that fits the evidence better.
- No one said anything about my mistake and not one of my friends rejected me. My alternative belief is “If I make a minor mistake, chances are people may not even notice. If they do notice, it’s unlikely they will reject me for it”.
As you can see, performing an experiment allows you to test out your catastrophic thoughts and predictions, rather than simply assuming they are true. Often, when we put perfectionism beliefs to the test, we learn that they are extreme and unhelpful. Once we know this, we generally feel more free to let go of our perfectionism behaviours. We encourage you to set up your own separate experiments for each belief that needs to be tested.