Perfectionism and Art Therapy

Perfectionism, Markers on Paper by Heather Caruso DVati, RP

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term perfectionism is defined as the doctrine that the perfection of moral character constitutes a person’s highest good. It states that freedom from sin is attainable on earth. Lastly, it is a disposition to regard anything short of perfection is not acceptable.[1] In this blog, I am writing about perfection as a disposition. It is different from the pursuit of excellence which is striving for or achieving a goal that is not specified. It may be referred to as doing something that was done before better.[2] Although it is admirable to improve oneself, to grow and achieve one’s highest potential, unhealthy striving exists in those with perfectionism.

There are negative and positive aspects to perfectionism. Perfectionism can lead to high achievement and performance. Even when they achieve a win, they don’t feel delighted with themselves, only relieved that this time they didn’t blow it. They feel that errors are a sign of personal incompetence. In essence, perfectionists fear imperfection and equate any error with personal inadequacy. They are usually overly sensitive to being criticized. They may procrastinate until the ideal time arrives to get to their tasks.[3] Perfectionists live convinced being perfect means self-acceptance.[4]

Research suggests that it comes from a few cognitive distortions that may have been learned early in life. Cognitive distortions are dysfunctional thinking patterns. Typical ones that are cited in perfectionism are labelling, black and white thinking, personalization and blame. If there is an error, they blame themselves and internalize that something must be wrong with them. They also label themselves negatively.[5] For example, I got 95% on my physics test, I missed 5 percent of the questions. I didn’t study long enough (personalization), next time I will stay up all night if I have to, the teacher must think I am an idiot. I am too stupid to pass this course (labelling and black and white thinking). Black and white thinking would be either I do this test perfectly or I am an idiot and I have failed.

A great article online highlighted some of the more common symptoms of perfectionism.[6] For example:

  • people-pleasing
  • feeling things are never good enough
  • procrastination
  • critical of yourself and others
  • all or nothing thinking
  • aversion to risk, even minor ones
  • hard time opening up to people
  • taking things personally
  • over-concerned with minor details
  • defensive when criticized
  • never quite there yet
  • you feel guilty a lot of the time
  • you use the words should, ought to have, and could have a lot

I shoulda, coulda, oughta write my oughtobiography.

     Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses artmaking as a means of expression. It is a great way to unpack some of the stress surrounding perfectionistic traits. It can help with refocusing perspective, stress relief and bringing issues forward to reflect on for personal growth.

A case example can highlight how art therapy can help. Jane (pseudonym) a 45-year-old woman came for support with anxiety. She felt her stress levels were a 10 out of 10. She was not sleeping, irritable and depressed. She said the things she used to do like exercise and go on nature trails stopped because she found herself getting obsessive about how well she was performing at the gym or her stats on her Fitbit. She said she gave up on all exercise and did not even go on walks. She was having problems with her knees since gaining weight. Through art therapy, Jane learned how to view her thought processes through her artmaking. She learned how to be more compassionate with her inner critic, to recognize black and white thinking and notice labels put on herself. The artwork is my response art to our session together.

[1] Perfectionism Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster

[2] Gotesky, R (1970, October). The pursuit of excellence. Educational theory. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-5446.1970.tb00486.x

[3] Flett GL, Blankstein KR, Hewitt PL, Koledin S. Components of perfectionism and procrastination among college students. Soc Behav Pers. 1992;20:85–94. doi: 10.2224/sbp.1992.20.2.85. [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

[4] Greenspon TS. Making sense of error: A view of the origins and treatment of perfectionism. Am J Psychother. 2008;62:263–282. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

[5] Burns D. (2000). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York, NY: Quill. Retrieved from Google Scholar

[6] Gregoire, C. (2013, Nov). 14 signs your perfectionism has gotten out of control. Huffpost. Retrieved from URL 14 Signs Your Perfectionism Has Gotten Out Of Control | HuffPost Life

Heather Caruso is a registered psychotherapist, art therapist and owner of Art Therapy Guelph. For more information please contact us below: