So far, we have covered a lot of information about our thoughts and how they influence our feelings and actions. As you know, unhelpful thoughts usually come before unhelpful emotions and behaviours. Sometimes we see the world accurately, but often our thoughts and interpretations are biased in some way. This is called ‘distorted thinking’ and it can lead to undue emotional distress and damaging behaviours.
Remember back to Week 1, when we covered the model of perfectionism. This showed us that biased thinking is an important part of the perfectionism cycle. Distorted thoughts can often be categorised into one or more unhelpful thinking styles. We all fall into these thinking styles from time to time, but problems arise when they become our default mode. Some of these thinking styles are very common amongst perfectionists. As you read through the thinking styles below, take note of the ones that resonate with you.
You only notice the negative aspects of a situation and fail to acknowledge the positives. This is common in perfectionism. For example, you may only notice the negative aspects of your performance and ignore the things you did well. Your perception of the whole situation can be impacted by a small mistake or negative detail.
E.g., “My speech was awful, did you hear me mispronounce that word” (focussing on one mistake and discounting that the rest of the speech went well).
All or nothing thinking
You think in black and white terms and fail to see the shades of gray. This is also known as ‘dichotomous’ thinking, because you see only one of two extremes. All-or-nothing thinking is one of the most common thinking styles for maintaining perfectionism. For example, you judge yourself as either a success or a failure, depending on whether you meet your standards. One error, and you lump yourself in the failure category. This maintains self-criticism and the drive to try harder next time.
E.g., “I ate one chocolate bar today, therefore I’ve failed and my diet is completely ruined”.
You hold yourself and others to different standards. You apply demanding and unrealistic standards to yourself, whilst being more lenient towards others. You accept that others are not perfect and forgive them for their mistakes, but you can’t stand to treat yourself this way. Expecting more of yourself than of others is problematic because it results in self-criticism (and therefore maintains perfectionism).
E.g., “It’s ok for others to leave the house without makeup, but it is absolutely unacceptable for me”.
You take one mistake or error in your performance and generalise it to all current and future situations. Overgeneralizing statements often start with absolute terms like “I always…”, “I never…”, “Nobody…” and “Everyone…”. The common scenario where a perfectionist takes one mistake to mean that they are a complete failure is an example of overgeneralization.
E.g., “I forgot about the meeting today, I never get anything right!”.
You have rules and standards for how you should live and behave. These often come in the form of ‘should statements’ – “I should do more of this” or “I shouldn’t have done that”. Perfectionists are all too familiar with these types of statements and often use them to motivate against poor standards. The problem with should statements is that they are often rigid and therefore set us up for failure.
E.g., “I should have done more at the gym today. I should work harder”.
You blow things out of proportion and think the worst. You might ask yourself ‘what if’ questions and feel anxious or fearful as a result. Perfectionists often catastrophize about the consequences of failure. They might predict that terrible things will happen if they don’t perform at their best, which acts as a motivator for perfectionistic behaviour.
E.g., “If I don’t look perfect, I’ll be rejected and have no friends”
You assign labels to yourself and others, which are often highly critical. Labels are global statements based on specific situations, which means they are often unfair. Perfectionists are particularly prone to use labelling when they have failed to measure up to their standards. In these instances, they might call themselves things like, “failure”, “loser”, “stupid”, “hopeless”, and so on.
E.g., “I can’t believe I did that, I’m so useless”
You take full responsibility for events and outcomes that actually have a shared responsibility. As such, you blame yourself for things that could or do go wrong. This results in a lot of pressure and self-criticism. Perfectionists often take on too much responsibility because they have unrealistic expectations for themselves, double standards, or they don’t trust others to perform tasks perfectly enough.
E.g., “It’s my fault we lost the grand final” (ignoring all the other factors that contributed to this outcome).
You assume you know what someone else is thinking. However, in reality, this is not possible. In relation to perfectionism, this often involves assuming the worst. For example, you might assume that people are judging or thinking badly of you. In this case, you wrongly interpret their neutral behaviour in a negative way.
E.g., “I know he thinks I don’t have what it takes and will never make it to the olympics”.
You think you know what is going to happen in the future. Again, as with many of the thinking styles, there is often a bias towards the negative here. For example, you predict that you will perform poorly and fail to meet your standards. As a result, you feel anxious and resort to the types of behaviours that keep perfectionism going.
E.g., “I’m going to make a complete fool of myself in the job interview”.