Perfectionism is a type of what behavioral scientists call a “schema.” A schema is a mental structure we use to organize and simplify our knowledge of the world around us. We have schemas about ourselves, other people, food, and in fact almost everything. Everyone tends to have favorite schema, which they use often and becomes their go-to means of interpreting the world. Perfectionism is mine, and it can often have detrimental impacts on my life. What about you?
During my studies in becoming a Certified Personal Trainer, I had a fascinating course on Behavior Change, which as you might imagine, is a critical element of health and fitness. I learned how schemas affect what we notice, how we interpret things and how we make decisions and behave. As I read the descriptions of the different schemas, certain friends, family members, former Significant Others, and coworkers immediately came to mind. However the one schema that clearly resonated with me is Perfectionism.
There are, generally speaking, two types of perfectionists: inwardly focused, and outwardly focused. Those of us, including myself, who are inwardly focused perfectionists feel we must be the best at everything; that everything must be kept in perfect order; and we can’t make mistakes. Outwardly focused perfectionists, on the other hand, demand perfection in others. This has never been an issue for me, and in fact at times affected my work managerial style because I was told that I “cut people too much slack.” But I digress…
I’ve spent a great deal of time contemplating my need for perfection. I think it started in childhood, where as the elder sibling, perfection seemed to be the benchmark standard for behavior in order to receive love and attention from my parents. There were often messages such as “That was nice, but I bet you could do better.” Or: “Wow, six A’s and one B+ on your report card! You need to bring that B+ up to an A next time.”
The problem is not in having high standards or in working hard. Perfectionism becomes a problem when it causes emotional wear and tear or when it keeps you from succeeding or from being happy. The emotional consequences of perfectionism include fear of making mistakes, stress from the pressure to perform, and self-consciousness from feeling both self-confidence and self-doubt. It can also include tension, frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger or fear of humiliation. These are common experiences for inwardly focused perfectionists.
Interestingly, I spent many years working for corporate organizations where perfectionism was the expected benchmark of minimally acceptable performance. To rise above that (and receive any significant above-average monetary compensation) you must essentially have cured cancer, walked on water, or solved world hunger (analogies only, of course). Remembering the painful and frustrating annual torture of fighting, unsuccessfully, for higher than “average” performance ratings for my awesome staff members, I began to wonder whether choosing to work for organizations with this culture was actually a manifestation of my own perfectionistic “schema maintenance.” It’s like a grown-up version of my childhood experience.
The impacts of being a perfectionist on my health and fitness have actually been quite positive on a physical level, as I’ve constantly sought to improve my performance and do everything I can to maintain my health. Where it can impact me negatively is on the emotional front: for example, the feeling of being a failure if I miss a planned workout, or worse yet “making up” the missed workout on another day and exhausting myself in the process. (This is extremely common with triathletes, not surprisingly.) This need for perfection can, if I’m not very careful and self-aware, impact my personal relationships when I sacrifice spending time with those I care about in order to make sure I achieve my training and performance goals.
As a coach, I want to help my clients who dealing with this perfectionistic schema by ensuring their training/fitness activities are designed with life balance in mind. Finding time-efficient workouts that still accomplish their performance goals but open up more time for other important things in life, for example. Overall, however, my most important role is to consistently helping my clients recognize when they’re getting too deep into perfectionism, and guiding them to “pull myself back” to a healthier mindset.
Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES is a Fitness and Nutrition Coach who works with clients virtually to help them transform their health and fitness. She takes a holistic approach to her clients’ wellness through strength training, cardiovascular exercise, real life/behavior-based nutrition strategies and recovery techniques. She’ll work with you one-on-one to help you live a healthy and active life and achieve your unique fitness goals. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.
 Ramirez Basco, Monica. The Perfect Trap: Perfectionism Can Lead to Physical and Emotional Stress – A Guide to Giving Up the Unattainable. Psychology Today, May 2016.
NASM. Wellness Coach Behavior Change. Chapter 6: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.