After a long time of engaging in perfectionism behaviours, they can become automatic. Even if your beliefs shift over time, you may still check, avoid or engage in perfectionism behaviours out of habit For example, Laura used to constantly fiddle with her hair to make sure it sat in the ‘right’ place. This behaviour has now become automatic, rather than being linked to any strongly held beliefs.
Laura could use habit reversal to help her overcome this behaviour. Habit reversal is particularly useful for unhelpful behaviours that happen outside of our awareness. Research has shown that it can be effectively applied to perfectionistic behaviours that are habitual or repetitive. The technique involves first becoming more aware of the behaviour that you wish to stop. For Laura, this meant becoming more aware of when she was playing with her hair.
Using a diary or some other way of self-monitoring can help you become more aware of unconscious behaviours. For example, you could write down when you engage in the behaviour, where you do it, and for how long. These types of records can help you notice any patterns in your behaviour, such as times or locations when it happens most. Sometimes, we can also use a bit of help from friends and family. For example, Laura asked her friends to tell her when they noticed her playing with her hair.
To reverse the habit, you’ll need to pair the behaviour you want to change with an alternative behaviour or ‘competing response’. The alternative behaviour must be incompatible with the original behaviour. This will feel strange at first and will require practice. For example, Laura noticed that she was most likely to play with her hair when watching TV and having conversations with others. As such, she decided to either sit on her hands or hold her hands in her lap in these situations.
Of course, it’s tempting to return to your old habits. After all, they are comfortable and we don’t have to think about them. Habit reversal therefore requires persistence and motivation. If you find yourself struggling to maintain the new behaviour, make a list of all the problems that were caused by the old one. For Laura, playing with her hair meant she couldn’t relax during conversations. It was also distracting for others and made Laura appear nervous, which hurt her chances in job interviews and so on.
Often, repetitive and habitual behaviours occur when we are highly anxious or under stress. As such, learning relaxation techniques can also be helpful when reducing unwanted behaviours. You can use techniques like deep breathing, visualisation and mindfulness to prevent yourself from reverting to the old behaviour. The more relaxed you feel, the more likely you’ll be to stick with your new competing response. However, change takes time and you’ll need to practice this skill in different situations until it becomes automatic.