Exploring Your Demanding Standards
The Exploring Your Demanding Standards worksheet is designed to help clients examine a demanding standard, including its advantages and disadvantages. This can highlight the negative consequences of pursuing high standards and motivate clients to experiment with adjusting their self-imposed rules.
People with perfectionism pursue demanding, self-imposed standards in one or more areas of their life, and base their self-worth on meeting these expectations, despite the negative consequences this has (Shafran et al., 2010). While perfectionism is not a formal diagnostic category, it has been associated with multiple forms of psychopathology, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidality (Egan et al., 2011; Limburg et al., 2017; Smith et al., 2018). For this reason, perfectionism represents a “transdiagnostic” factor that is implicated in several disorders.
Individuals can set demanding high standards in almost any life domain, including their work, appearance, bodily hygiene, social and romantic relationships, eating habits, health, time management, hobbies, leisure activities, sports, orderliness, and several others (Stoeber & Stoeber, 2009). However, the demanding standards associated with perfectionism tend to have three common characteristics (Egan et al., 2014):
- They are self-imposed. The individual views their demanding standards as their own, although they may have originated elsewhere. Potential sources of demanding standards include one’s family, social networks, institutions (e.g., schools or religious practices), social media, and wider society. In addition, standards can be communicated overtly (e.g., the client was told to adhere to the standard) or covertly (e.g., striving to meet the standard was modeled by others).
- They relate to domains which are important to the individual. For example, a painter might pursue demanding standards related to artistry but is unlikely to have equally demanding standards in an area that is less personally significant, such as their cleanliness.
- They often take the form of rigid rules (e.g., ‘must’, ‘ought’, or ‘should’ statements) about how the individual needs to perform in the domain where perfectionism exists. For example, a perfectionistic student may hold the standard “I must be at the top of the class” or “I should never make grammatical errors”.
Shafran and colleagues (2002) note that while these standards are sometimes objectively demanding, their subjectively demanding nature is often more pertinent in perfectionism. In other words, the pursuit of standards that are personally challenging leads individuals with perfectionism to strive to do better.
Striving to meet demanding standards can be a rewarding process and lead to significant gains (e.g., praise, social status, financial rewards, etc.). For this reason, perfectionistic individuals often dislike the notion of ‘lowering’ their standards or ‘relaxing’ their rules. However, demanding standards can also have adverse consequences and cause emotional (e.g., depression), social (e.g., isolation), and behavioral (e.g., procrastination) difficulties (Egan et al., 2014). Moreover, cognitive behavioral models of perfectionism have highlighted how these negative consequences can reinforce demanding standards. Examples include:
- Dichotomous (black-or-white) evaluations of performance. Because demanding standards tend to be inflexible and dichotomous (the rule is either met or not met), they often lead to ‘all-or-nothing’ evaluations of performance. Unfortunately, individuals with perfectionism are inclined to believed that have not met their standards due to two cognitive biases: selective attention (i.e., focusing on errors) and discounting (e.g., dismissing achievements that are less than perfect).
- Failure and self-criticism. Because demanding standards are inherently challenging, individuals will inevitably fail to achieve them at times. This can lead to distress and self-criticism, reinforcing the belief that self-worth depends upon meeting their demanding standards.
- Avoidance. For some individuals, trying to meet demanding standards is so aversive that it leads to avoidance (e.g., procrastination or giving up). Avoidance behaviors are likely to result in actual or perceived failures, which intensifies self-criticism and reinforces the notion that self-worth is contingent upon meeting demanding standards.
- Reappraisal. Individuals with perfectionism often view personal achievements as evidence that their standards are not demanding enough (e.g., “If I can meet my standards, they must be too low”), which leads them to ‘set the bar higher’. Resetting standards at higher and higher levels not only reinforces striving but increases the risk of failure.
- Narrowed interests and domains for self-evaluation. Striving to meet demanding standards may cause individuals to overinvest in the domains where they hold these rules. Consequently, other life domains may suffer (e.g., relationships, physical and emotional health, etc.). Over time, pursuing demanding standards may become the individual’s primary source of self-worth, reinforcing the need to achieve them.
“We have talked about some of the demanding standards you set yourself. I think it would be useful to explore whether these standards work for you or not. Can we look at this worksheet together? We can use it to explore one of your demanding standards, where it comes from, and the consequences of trying to meet it. This will help you decide whether it’s a standard you want to adjust”.
- What is a demanding standard you try to live up to? Ask the client to identify a demanding standard that they strive to meet. Demanding standards are usually phrased as ‘should’, ‘must’, and ‘ought to’ rules the client feels compelled to follow. Note that these standards can exist in almost any life domain.
- Where does this standard come from? Explore where and when the client developed the standard. Clients often view demanding standards as their own, so identifying their origins may require exploration (e.g., “Who taught you that this standard is important? Looking back, can you think of anyone who embodied this rule?”). Furthermore, the standard may have been communicated explicitly (e.g., in the form of family sayings) or implicitly (e.g., a family member modeled the standard).
- How do you know when you are trying to meet this standard? Explore how the standard manifests in the client’s life, including how the client thinks, feels, and behaves when they strive to fulfil it. The client may find it helpful to explore a recent time when they tried to meet the standard (e.g., “Tell me about the last time you strived to be the best at work – what happened?”).
- What are the advantages of setting this standard for yourself? Ambivalence about change is common amongst people with demanding standards. Discuss what the client sees as beneficial about pursuing the standard. If the client finds this difficult, explore these advantages from another person’s perspective (e.g., “What would someone who cares about you say are the good sides of setting this standard for yourself?”). Exploring the clients fears about relaxing the standard can also highlight its perceived benefits (e.g., “Suppose you stopped cleaning your house so thoroughly – what’s the worst thing you imagine might happen?”).
- What are the disadvantages of setting this standard for yourself? Discuss the problems and personal costs that come with pursuing the standard. This can include negative effects on the client’s thinking, feelings, behaviors, relationships, and other life domains. If the client finds it difficult to identify disadvantages, explore these from another person’s perspective (e.g., “What would your partner say are the downsides of you striving to meet this standard?”).
- If you were to continue trying to meet this standard, what would the positive consequences be? What are the long-term benefits of continuing to pursue the standard (if any)? Some clients find it helpful to have a timeframe when reflecting on long-term consequences (e.g., “Suppose five years have passed – how might your life have improved because of pursuing this standard?”). Timeframes often need to be shortened for younger individuals (e.g., six months’ time rather than five years).
- If you were to continue trying to meet this standard, what would the negative consequences be? Explore the problems that pursuing the demanding standard is likely to cause in the long term across key life domains (e.g., work, relationships, health, hobbies, etc.). This discussion can include the client’s worst fears about not changing (e.g., “What is the worst thing that might happen if this standard doesn’t change?”). Egan and colleagues (2014) also recommend highlighting that doing things the same way doesn’t necessarily mean that the situation will stay the same – it may worsen.
- Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., & Shafran, R. (2011). Perfectionism as a transdiagnostic process: A clinical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 203-212. DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.04.009.
- Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M. M. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. Guilford Press.
- Limburg, K., Watson, H. J., Hagger, M. S., & Egan, S. J. (2017). The relationship between perfectionism and psychopathology: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73, 1301-1326. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22435.
- Shafran, R., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2002). Clinical perfectionism: A cognitive-behavioral analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 773-791. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7967(01)00059-6.
- Shafran, R., Egan, S., & Wade, T. (2010). Overcoming perfectionism: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques. Constable and Robinson.
- Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Chen, S., Saklofske, D. H., Mushquash, C., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2018). The perniciousness of perfectionism: A meta-analytic review of the perfectionism-suicide relationship. Journal of Personality, 86, 522-542. DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12333.
- Stoeber, J., & Stoeber, F. S. (2009). Domains of perfectionism: Prevalence and relationships with perfectionism, age, gender, and satisfaction with life. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 530-535. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.12.006.