From the Publisher
"An excellent description of perfectionism and its self-sabotaging disadvantages. Presents many efficient and effective cognitive-behavioral methods for dealing with and minimizing this affliction. Quite practical and thorough—but nicely flexible and unperfectionistic!"
—Albert Ellis, Ph.D., president of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City and author of A Guide to Rational Living
"All of us know someone who is a perfectionist and most of us have joked about it at one time or another. For some it can be a useful trait that ensures some organization in a disorganized world. But for those individuals coping with too much perfectionism, it can be a curse that takes the pleasure out of life and in some cases can lead to severe anxiety disorders. Now two leading mental health practitioners and clinical scientists provide up-to-date, scientifically validated skills for overcoming perfectionism and regaining control of one's life. This long overdue book should relieve much suffering and enhance functioning for the millions of individuals dealing with excessive perfectionism."
—David H. Barlow, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University
"When Perfect Isn't Good Enough surpasses any of the other books on perfectionism in quality and scope. Antony and Swinson have synthesized what we know about perfectionism and used it to create the first well-integrated approach to reduce the suffering caused by it. The chapters clearly define perfectionism and provide concrete steps to master this demon. Final chapters focus on how perfectionism can manifest itself in other disorders, demonstrating how pernicious this phenomenon can be—and why such a book is so essential. This book will be invaluable to people suffering from perfectionism and to the therapists trying to help them."
—Randy O. Frost, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, MA
"When Perfect Isn't Good Enough is an excellent source for people looking to adjust their standards and expectations and, by so doing, increase the joy in their lives. It is easy to read, filled with solid advice, and based on the best scientific research. Unlike most other self-help books, the many exercises suggested by the authors provide the reader with the tools to put these words into action. Antony and Swinson have produced a thorough and systemic manual to lead the perfectionist out of the misery of depression, anger, worry, and social anxiety, and into the promised land of realistic self-evaluation, self-esteem, and positive interpersonal relations. Bravo!"
—Richard Heimberg, Ph.D., Adult Anxiety Clinic in the department of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA
Read an Excerpt
When we began our work on the first edition of this book, we struggled to decide on exactly what the scope should be. It was difficult to choose which aspects of perfectionism to focus on, because the term "perfectionist" can be applied to many different types of people. Consider the following examples:
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart described herself as a "maniacal perfectionist" (Winfrey 2000). In fact, according to a 2004 article in Forbes, Ms. Stewart allegedly once threatened to fire her stockbroker because she didn't like his company's telephone "hold" music (Ackman 2004).
People who worked with director James Cameron on the blockbuster film Titanic often described him in interviews as being a perfectionist. They told stories of how he often lost his temper when things didn't go his way. In fact, Cameron's apparent temper, stemming from his insistence that his film crew meet his high standards, was the subject of many stories in the media around the time of the film's release.
In 2003, French chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide shortly after his restaurant's rating in the Michelin Red Guide was reduced from 19/20 to 17/20. The story is chronicled in Rudolph Chelminski's 2005 book, "The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine."
In her 1995 biography, Movement Never Lies: An Autobiography, Canadian ballet dancer Karen Kain described herself as a perfectionist. Although she had established herself as one of the most respected dancers in the world, she occasionally had bouts of depression, stemming from self-imposed standards that she felt she rarely met.
The character of Niles Crane from TV's Frasier can be described as a perfectionist. He sees everyone other than himself as inferior in some way, and he goes to great lengths to make sure that things are correct—even the graffiti in the Cafe Nervosa toilets (which he corrected with a red pen). Other TV perfectionists include Monica Gellar (Friends), Bree Van De Kamp (Desperate Housewives), and Felix Unger (The Odd Couple).
Although all of these individuals can be described as perfectionists, they are very different in the ways they express their perfectionism. In some of these examples, perfectionism is associated with anger; in others, perfectionism is associated with depression; and in some, perfectionism is associated with anxiety, inflexibility, or a lack of spontaneity. Despite these differences, the people in each of these examples share an important quality. In each case, there appears to be strict standards or expectations for oneself or others that either cannot be met or can only be met at a great cost.
Perfectionism is often associated with certain psychological problems, including excessive anger, depression, anxiety, body image problems, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In fact, it's hard to imagine a comprehensive book on perfectionism that doesn't touch on these areas. Therefore, in writing this book, we chose to focus on methods of dealing with perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors in general, as well as perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors that are associated with specific psychological problems.
In part 1 of this book, we discuss general aspects of perfectionism, including the nature and impact of perfectionism and the role of thoughts and behaviors in maintaining perfectionism. Part 2 provides specific instructions on how to conduct a self-assessment of your perfectionism and how to use specific strategies to overcome perfectionistic thinking and related behaviors. In part 2, we have added a new chapter on acceptance-based strategies. In part 3 we discuss the association between perfectionism and specific psychological problems (such as depression, anxiety, and so on). These chapters will be helpful if you experience some of these issues. Part 4 includes a new chapter on preventing your perfectionism from returning. The completely updated "Further Readings" list provides suggestions for those who want more in-depth information about the various topics covered in this book.
When we wrote the first edition of this book (published in 1998), there was almost no research available on the treatment of perfectionism. There were well-established treatments available for the types of problems that are typically associated with perfectionism (like anxiety, depression, body-image issues, obsessive-compulsive problems, and so on), but not specifically for perfectionism. That has all changed in recent years. In 2007, we published a study showing that treating social anxiety using the types of strategies described in this book led to changes not only in anxiety about social situations, but also reductions in perfectionism (Ashbaugh et al. 2007). Following treatment for social anxiety, participants in our study reported being less concerned about making mistakes and were less likely to doubt whether their actions were correct. However, this study didn't include a treatment focused specifically on perfectionism—rather the treatment was focused on anxiety.
In another study, Riley et al. (2007) used strategies that were similar to those in this book to provide ten sessions of treatment designed to help people who suffer with high levels of perfectionism. In this study, the symptoms of 75 percent of the participants were significantly improved following treatment. In fact, scores on the main measure of perfectionism used in this study decreased by 46 percent for those who received the treatment, compared to only 7.6 percent for individuals who were on a wait-list but didn't actually receive any treatment.
In a third study, Australian researchers (Pleva and Wade 2007) compared a pure self-help treatment for perfectionism (the first edition of this book, actually) to a self-help treatment that included this book as well as brief contact with a therapist (eight fifty-minute sessions). Participants in both treatments experienced a reduction in perfectionism, though people did best when the book was combined with guidance from a therapist. For example, 40 percent of individuals in the pure self-help treatment and 46 percent of individuals in the guided self-help treatment reported a significant reduction in concern over making mistakes.
In summary, there is now emerging evidence that the strategies described in this book are helpful—both on their own and when combined with treatment by a professional therapist who has experience in using these methods.
We recommend that you read all of the chapters in parts 1, 2, and 4. In part 3, you may wish to select chapters that are most relevant to you and read them thoroughly. It can also be helpful to read the other chapters, as you may recognize issues that you were not aware you had.
Many of the chapters include exercises designed to change perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors. On its own, just reading this book is unlikely to lead to a dramatic reduction in your perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors. To see real changes, it will be important to actually use the strategies described. This book isn't a replacement for obtaining help from a qualified mental health professional, and you may wish to seek professional help for your perfectionism and associated problems. The chapters in part 3 describe treatments that have been effective for the particular clinical problems that are sometimes related to perfectionism. In addition, chapter 6 includes ideas regarding how to find additional help, if necessary.
Obtaining a Journal
The exercises in this book require you to answer specific questions and record relevant information. Therefore, it will be important to pick up a notebook or journal to use as you work through this book. Be sure to have your journal ready before beginning chapter 1. Alternatively, you can complete the exercises on a computer.
A warning: don't try to do everything in this book perfectly. We describe many more techniques, strategies, and ideas than you could possibly use effectively. It is best to choose a relatively small number of techniques and practice them until you can use them well. If you try to do everything that this book suggests, you probably won't benefit much from any of the strategies. Instead, pick and choose techniques that seem most relevant to your problem.
However, many of the strategies described in this book require repeated practice to be beneficial. If you find that a particular method is not working for you, you will need to decide whether to continue practicing that technique or to move on to another strategy. If a particular suggestion is not working for you, try not to react like a perfectionist. It will take time to notice changes. Giving yourself permission to fall short of meeting your high expectations while trying to overcome your perfectionism is a good first step toward learning to have more flexible and realistic expectations.