Identifying Your Demanding Standards
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). The Identifying Your Demanding Standards worksheet is designed to help clients identify the domains where they set demanding standards and clarify what they are.
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 many 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.
- 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 the ways in which these negative consequences 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 believe that they 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.
The Identifying Your Demanding Standards worksheet is designed to help clients identify the domains where they set demanding standards and clarify what they are. These standards can then be a focus for intervention in the later stages of therapy.
“It sounds like you hold some demanding standards for yourself. Can we look at this worksheet together? It gives example of the demanding standards people sometimes set themselves. It might help us identify some of the standards that operate in your life”.
- Areas of your life. The demanding standards are organized according to the key life domains in which they arise. The client may observe that they set demanding standards in specific areas or across a wider range of domains then initially thought.
- Demanding standards. Ask the client to read over the list of demanding standards and identify those which seem most relevant. If the client identifies a demanding standard or life domain where they experience perfectionism that isn’t on the list, this can be added using the additional spaces.
- How much do I agree with the standard? Ask the client to rate how much they agree with each of the standards using a 0 – 10 scale (where ‘10’ means the client completely agrees with the standard, and ‘0’ means they don’t agree with it at all).
- 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.