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Discounting In Perfectionism – The Ratchet Effect

When individuals with perfectionism successfully meet their demanding standards, these accomplishments are often discounted as “easy to do,” “no big deal,” or having “scope for improvement.” As a result, there is a little satisfaction in these achievements. This reinforces the need to strive and achieve in order to maintain positive self-evaluation, which leads individuals to set even higher standards for themselves. Consequently, individuals with perfectionism are likely to set ever-more demanding standards. In engineering, ratchets are useful devices which allow forward movement, but not backwards. The Discounting In Perfectionism – The Ratchet Effect handout illustrates the bias of discounting with reference to a ratchet metaphor.

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Description

People with perfectionism strive to meet extremely high standards, despite this having negative consequences for them. For many individuals with perfectionism, their feelings of self-worth are dependent upon striving for and achieving these demanding standards.

The cognitive behavioral model of perfectionism identifies several factors which maintain perfectionism (Egan et al., 2014; Shafran et al., 2010; Shafran et al., 2014). These include:

  • Setting extreme standards for oneself which are difficult to achieve. People with perfectionism pursue standards are challenging to meet and often impossible to maintain, which inevitably results in failure.
  • Self-worth is contingent on fulfilling high standards. For individuals with perfectionism, feeling good about themselves is often dependent upon meeting demanding standards in a limited number of domains. This can lead to a narrowing of interests, problems in other areas of life, and over-investment in striving and achievement.
  • Selective attention. This cognitive bias causes people with perfectionism to focus their attention on faults and perceived failures (rather than successes) when evaluating their performance. As a result, they are inclined believe that they have failed to meet their standards and continue to strive.
  • Self-criticism when standards are not met. Failing to meet perfectionistic standards leads to intense self-criticism, which reinforces the belief that positive self-worth depends on striving and achievement.
  • Avoidance. For some people, striving to meet demanding standards and the fear of failure are so aversive that they motivate avoidance behaviors. These include delaying tasks (i.e., procrastination), giving up on activities, or avoiding certain tasks altogether. Avoidance is likely to result in actual or perceived failures, which reinforces the need to strive.
  • Positive reinforcement of striving. Striving to achieve and the fulfilment of perfectionistic standards sometimes have reinforcing consequences including praise, recognition, and rewards.

One critical maintenance factor in perfectionism is a form of cognitive bias called discounting. When individuals with perfectionism successfully meet their demanding standards, these accomplishments are often discounted as “easy to do,” “no big deal,” or having “scope for improvement.” As a result, there is a little satisfaction in these achievements. This reinforces the need to strive and achieve in order to maintain positive self-evaluation, which leads individuals to set even higher standards for themselves. Consequently, individuals with perfectionism are likely to set ever-more demanding standards. Ultimately, this increases the impossibility of meeting these demanding standards and the likelihood of failure.

Instructions

“People who struggle with perfectionism set demanding standards for themselves, but when they meet a goal they have set for themselves they often seem to find a way to discount or dismiss their achievement. Would you be willing to explore this with me?”

Use this handout to explain the ratchet metaphor, and as a starting point to discuss biases of discounting in perfectionism. Example discussion points include:

  • Can you give me some examples of standards that you set for yourself? Perhaps ones that other people might think are demanding?
  • What do you say to yourself when you live up to your standards, or achieve one of your goals?
  • Have you ever ‘ratcheted up’ and set an even more demanding standard?
  • What are the benefits of ‘ratcheting up’ your standards?
  • What might be the costs of ‘ratcheting up’ your standards?
  • What might help you to break out of the ratchet effect?
  • How might you celebrate your successes? What have you seen other people do when they achieve one of their goals?

References

  • Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M. M. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. Guilford.
  • Shafran, R., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2002). Clinical perfectionism: A cognitive-behavioral analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 773-791.
  • Shafran, R., Egan, S., & Wade, T. (2010). Overcoming perfectionism: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioral techniques. Constable and Robinson.