Making Mistakes to Enhance Self-Esteem and Improve Performanceby Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
The vast majority of my clients with anxiety disorders are perfectionists. Additionally, perfectionism is extremely pervasive in our culture generally. However, the typical response when I inquire about perfectionism is, “Oh, no, I’m not a perfectionist. I’m far from perfect.” Such a response indicates a lack of understanding regarding the concept of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the belief that one must attain perfection or one is a failure. Perfectionism is an extreme distortion of the concept “Do your best” when an individual believes that his or her “best” means, “perfect.” The individual becomes fearful of making mistakes and may experience stress, anxiety, and depression as a result.
Some typical perfectionistic beliefs include:
“It is absolutely necessary that everyone like me and approve of me.”
“I must be absolutely competent and perfect in everything I undertake.”
“If I make a mistake, I am a miserable failure.”
“I’d rather not try than to make a mistake.”
“It’s terrible to ever be embarrassed or to appear foolish.”
“A perfect relationship is possible if I just find the right person.”
Another response I often hear from people is, “Sure I’m a perfectionist. What’s wrong with that?” The problem is that perfectionistic beliefs undermine an individual’s self-esteem and wreak havoc with relationships.
Consider. Two students work hard on their term papers and both attain a 94 out of a possible 100 points earning each of them an A. Which student will feel better about him or herself? The one that comments, “I did my best and I achieved a good grade,” or the one that states, “I wonder what I did wrong--why didn’t I get 100 points?” The one who overly criticizes his or her performance will feel worse.
Over time, this self-critical attitude will affect performance. As perfectionistic beliefs increase an individual’s stress or anxiety, his or her ability to perform complex and/or mental tasks will decrease. Thus, such attitudes affect job performance, school performance, and even everyday tasks.
For instance, in the job context, an individual may become afraid to share ideas and take risks for fear of making a mistake or appearing foolish. The employee may become so focused on the details of the job that he or she becomes unable to complete a task.
In fact, procrastination and paralysis are common features associated with perfectionism. The perfectionist becomes so fearful of making a mistake that he or she waits to the last possible moment when caught between two beliefs--one focused upon displeasing someone by making a mistake and the other focused upon displeasing someone by not completing the task. Additionally, a person may procrastinate as a way to save face. It’s often easier to rationalize by saying, “I would have done better if I had more time.”
In severe cases of perfectionism, the individual may experience complete paralysis. He or she may quit trying even simple tasks because the tasks become so aversive.
Finally, perfectionists may find that relationships are detrimentally affected by their behavior because the perfectionist not only has high expectations for him or herself, but also for other people. This means that he or she may tend to be overly critical or demanding of other people, especially those close to him or her.
Although the degree of perfectionism may vary considerably from mild traits that do not interfere with an individual’s functioning to severe traits that cause complete dysfunction, it is very common in this culture. In the United States, a media that has depicted perfection has heavily influenced us. We see commercials in which a woman mops floors wearing a dress and pearls. We watch television programs in which the children are always well behaved or where the problems can be resolved in 30 minutes. Print ads use models with perfect bodies and attractive features. Wherever we turn, we are inundated with the message of perfection. If we don’t achieve these standards, we come to believe something is wrong with us. As a result, perfectionistic traits have become common in the population of the United States.
Additionally, perfectionists are overly represented in the anxiety disorders and depressive disorders which comprise approximately 20% of the population. The perfectionism may contribute to the anxiety and depression as the individual is unable to achieve the standards he or she believes are necessary to meet.
First, it is important to be aware of your perfectionistic beliefs. When you are experiencing stress, depression, or anxiety, write down a description of the event and then record a list of your thoughts related to the event. For example, you have a job interview planned and you are feeling anxious. The thoughts you write may be similar to the following: “What if I blow the interview? I never do well. I’ll never amount to anything. I’m just a failure. I may as well not even try.”
Once you begin to examine your thoughts on a regular basis, it will be difficult to ignore the thought process that contributes to your experience of stress, depression, or anxiety. After you become aware of these thoughts, you want to examine them and determine the irrational ideas they may contain. For instance, in the above example, the individual is engaging in catastrophic thinking, all or nothing thinking, and hopelessness. Catastrophic thinking occurs when a person thinks that the worst possible thing will happen. It can often be distinguished by “what if” questions. All or nothing thinking, common for perfectionists, is the belief that everything can be categorized as opposites--good/bad, black/white--with no shades of gray. Therefore, a person either succeeds or fails; there are no degrees of success. All or nothing thinking can often be detected by use of the words always or never. Hopelessness is the irrational belief that the person already knows the future outcome of his or her action and has no control over future events, and therefore, need not attempt to change the situation.
The task, once you have determined your irrational thinking pattern, is to challenge and change the beliefs that contribute to your stress and dysfunction. If you have correctly identified the irrational beliefs, you can challenge them directly. For instance, with catastrophic thinking, you can state, “The worst possible thing is not the thing likely to happen.” For all or nothing thinking, you can state, “It is not true that I always fail.”
When people try to change their irrational perfectionistic thinking, they often think they should be able to use these statements just once in order to change. But think of how many times you have used the perfectionistic statements in your lifetime. An adequate challenge to these beliefs must be frequent and consistent.
Finally, the strongest challenge to irrational beliefs is opposing experiential evidence. In other words, you want to experience making mistakes as a positive influence in your life. Making mistakes gives us the opportunity to learn and to grow. As you overcome your fear of making mistakes, you will be able to take risks. The ability to take risks is what allows a person to be successful in a career, in sports, and in personal relationships.
One way to experience mistakes is taking the opportunity to deliberately make them. First of all, identify situations that are fearful for you such as dropping papers in front of your boss or calling a colleague by the wrong name. Then, deliberately engage in the behavior while using rational self-statements to help yourself cope. One thing to remember in this process is that what one person may consider a mistake, may not bother another person. The important thing is to face life’s challenges by risking mistakes. In doing so, you will become more self-confident and will be able to accomplish more because your fears will not inhibit you.