Learning to Live Less Perfectly

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Although many people confuse perfectionism with obsessive compulsive disorders, many see this as two separate entities that require different approaches in understanding. Most of us reading this will have an intuitive idea of what is being talked about, as most of us possess at least small levels of these two characteristics. Philip Gnilka, assistant professor in the Counseling and Human Development Services Program at Kent State University, has made an interesting distinction between a positive version of perfectionism (“adaptive” perfectionism) and a negative version (“maladaptive” perfectionism). Let’s look at his findings. These findings are published in the March 2011 edition of Counseling Today, published by the American Counseling Association.

Adaptive perfectionists, says Gnilka, have more powerful standards than others and these standards drive their behaviors, often in constructive ways. Professions in different fields, writers, actors, and others may display this kind of perfectionism and derive satisfaction and pleasure from a job well done. At the same time, they are not devastated when they make a mistake or when something goes out of control, and they learn from these experiences.

On the other hand, Gnilka reports that maladaptive perfectionists also have high standards but they are unable to experience any sense of personal fulfillment even when they meet their own high standards. They interpret anything less than total success as failure and this may plunge them into depths of self-criticism.

What can happen to maladaptive perfectionists is that they stop taking risks because they can never meet their standards, and hence they become chronically dispirited. This leads them to withdraw from rewarding life activities. Adaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, keep plugging away and life continues to shower rewards upon them.

Gnilka has reviewed suggestions made by therapists and recommends various approaches for helping those who struggle with maladaptive perfectionism:

*Assisting them in being selective concerning the tasks for which they think perfectionist standards are required

*Having them choose one activity for which they refrain from self-criticism and find satisfying even if not perfectly done

*Guiding them in setting reasonable goals

*Helping them build and solidify their own coping styles

Gnilka also says that counselors can provide support to maladaptive perfectionists by teaching them how to reframe failure and helping them to believe in their ability to reach their goals. Ken Fields, a licensed mental health counselor in Hawai’i who has more than 25 years experience in the field, says that counselors themselves need to help perfectionists to laugh at themselves and remind themselves that they are simply human. “Ultimately,” he says, “perfectionism is anti-human. You’re demanding something of yourself that humans aren’t capable of. We fumble, we make mistakes, we learn. That’s okay.”

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