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Problem-Solving Preoccupation: Fearing Mistakes and Imperfection

Updated: Jan 14

-Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

November 19, 2022



I learned this week that problem-solving preoccupation can become an addiction. Actually, now that I think about it, it's more likely that I became aware of it this week. I think I have been living with preoccupation so long that I didn't even recognize the fierce habit within.


Goodness knows, I'm not perfect by any means. But like many others, I've spent decades in life striving for for perfection (and failing). Oh wait, don't we all?


Engaging in counseling of my own 17 or so years ago after a lot of losses in life and love, allowed me to truly learn that I didn't have to be perfect. I learned that mistakes are absolutely normal and human, and perfectionism a not realistic.


If we look back to the past with knowledge we have now, it's easy to be a harsh critic. But if we did the best we could with the information we had at the time, each step of the way, then we need to accept our role in situations from the past, accept our human condition as imperfect and forge on applying the knowledge we've learned.


It is not fair to judge ourselves harshly for information we have now when we didn't have it in the past, despite how others judge us, or our inclination to be critical. But we can take the information we learn and seek, and apply it to the present and future.


Inspired to help others so that my years of anguish were not in vain, in 2009 I was accepted into a masters program for clinical mental health counseling and proceeded to obtain a doctorate, during which time I occasionally fell back on old habits of striving to get it perfectly right. The feelings of inadequacies we all face can sometimes lead us to not feel "good enough." Perfect is obviously not attainable and striving for it certainly causes a lot of pressure.


The fear of making mistakes or failing, mixed with a self-neglectful, abusive inner critic, can trip anyone up. Of course these old habits of thought will pop in everyone's mind from time to time. When they do, we need to break the habit of harsh thoughts.


By being intentional to bring our thoughts to awareness, and then doing something about the unhealthy ones takes motivation and attention. This effort though, can absolutely change someone's quality of life.


Let us explore how these fears of making mistake and failing, also known as imperfection fears, come to be, and then outline specific ways in which to manage them.



"Perfectionism is a maladaptive personality trait when expressed at high levels" (Ortiz, Tapia, Martinez, & Icaza, 2022). Perfectionism involves "two major elements: (a) self-imposed high or unattainable standards; (b) negative self-evaluation in the face of mistakes and preoccupation with making them." It feels very accomplished when someone completes a task which is correlated with a psychological sense of well-being. This is solidified in an environment that provides high praise and attention for perfection.


On the flip-side, people do not feel proud when a task isn't completed or their effort doesn't meet "standards." This can lead to negative self esteem, and is negatively conditioned when someone is highly critical or evaluative of them. In turn, the critical narrative is often adopted and can, and often leads to a harsh inner critic.


Rumination is a common symptom of perfectionists. The constant pressure someone who fears failing puts on themselves causes excessive worry, brooding and rumination, which can lead to an overall dysphoric feeling, and susceptibility to depression. "Perfectionists may be preoccupied with past mistakes and negative feelings that connote that they are not perfect and their lives are not perfect" (Flett, Coulter, Hewitt, & Nepon, 2011). "Several empirical studies with adult participants have examined perfectionism and rumination, and it has been found consistently that both self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism are associated with elevated rumination."


The experience of worry is often focused on things that might happen, or could happen; "much of this association is likely a reflection of fear of failure and anticipated mistakes that may never actually occur" (Flett, Coulter, Hewitt, & Neon, 2011). Because worry feels like problem-solving, it can also feel productive. This productive feeling, in return can reinforce the continued neural pathway of rumination and preoccupation then becomes habit forming and ultimately an addiction.


The preoccupation and productive cycle tends to also lead to a long-lasting rigid personality trait. "The difficulties in reducing levels of perfectionism is not altogether surprising in that a tendency to be perfectionistic is likely a relatively enduring aspect of personality that reflects the perfectionist’s sense of identity" (Flett, Coulter, Hewitt, & Neon, 2011). This deep-rooted personality trait and addiction speaks to just one complication in trying to change.


A second barrier in obtaining buy in from a perfectionist to want to change is sometimes success in obtaining perfection, and the pride and positive attention reinforces the continued preoccupation with not making mistakes. So many times we believe perfectionism is a motivator. It truly can be a double-edge sword. It is much healthier to strive for doing the best one can, or striving for excellence, but not perfection. It just isn't realistic and can lead to disappointment, and realistically, so much more.


Research abundantly reveals that perfectionism is maladaptive. There is a high correlation with perfectionism and a host of mental health diagnosis like eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety. Research has also identified an and a higher risk of suicidal ideation with people who have perfectionism (Shanaz, Saffer, & Klonsky, 2018). Perfectionism can be quite impairing.


Psychologists and counselors have agreed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies can be successful in helping people begin to change these maladaptive and dysfunctional thinking patterns. One strategy in CBT that can be helpful is examining the evidence for perfectionist thinking.


Some of the ways in which to examine the evidence include questioning. A sample of these questions are described below (Antony, 2015).

  • What facts, data, and experiences support my beliefs, predictions or interpretation?

  • Have I had any experiences to show that this thought is not completely true all the time?

  • If my best friend had this thought, what would I tell him or her?

  • If someone who loved me knew I was thinking this thought, what would he or she say to me?

  • When I am not feeling this way, does this sort of situation look different to me?

  • Are there small things that contradict my thoughts that I might be discounting?

  • Five years from now, as I look back on this, will I think about it any differently?

  • Am I blaming myself for something over which I have no control?


Remind yourself that everyone has flaws. You don't have to be perfect to be worthy of love or to have the capacity to care for yourself. Be proud for doing the best you could in the moments with the information you had at the time. Be proud for applying the knowledge gained from the past as you forge ahead. That really is good enough.

 


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing teresa@steppingtowardserenity.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.steppingtowardserenity.org


 


References


Antony, M.A. (April 9, 2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for perfectionism. Retrieved from


Flett, G.L., Coulter, L.M., Hewitt, P.L, and Nepon, T. (2011). Perfectionism, rumination, worry, and

depressive symptoms in early adolescents. Canadian Journal of School Psychology 26(3) 159-

176. DOI:10.1177/0829573511422039


Ortiz, R., Tapia, R, Martinez, E., and Icaza, D. (2022). Mediating mechanisms of perfectionism: Clinical

comorbidity of OCD and ED. Psychiatry. DOI:10.3389/fpsyt.2022.908926


Shahnaz, A., Saffer, B.Y., and Klonsky, E.D. (2018) The relationship of perfectionism to suicide ideation

and attempts in a large online sample. Personality and Individual Differences 130.\\\ 117-121.


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