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Move Conference Review 2021: Understanding Perfectionism with Jennifer Kemp

Jennifer Kemp is a clinical psychologist with expertise in Perfectionism. She presented to our team of admin staff and health professionals at our recent Move for Better Health Conference. We asked her to speak to the group as perfectionism seems to be a trait we often see in ourselves and some of our clients, which can be both helpful and unhelpful at times.

Jennifer describes perfectionism as a pattern of learned behaviours that can be unhelpful (or helpful if used well) in our lives. Perfectionism is NOT a mental illness; however, its processes are often well ingrained and happen somewhat automatically.

She described 5 processes of unhelpful perfectionism:

1. Setting extremely high and rigid standards

  • These standards may be somewhat insensitive to context (e.g. having to be really good at everything, rather than recognising we have areas of both strengths and weaknesses)
  • Even when we hit them, we often tend to raise the bar immediately… So they’re always just out of reach…

2. Intense fear of ‘failure’

  • A perceived failure could involve things like:
    • Making mistakes
    • Not helping enough
    • Not being good enough
  • … Such that you may feel you are
    • incompetent
    • perceived as incompetent by others
    • disliked
    • a failure in your work / as a person
  • This fear acts to drive your behaviour. You end up trying to do things specifically to avoid being/feeling incompetent/disliked/etc…

3. Relentless self-criticism

  • Our language is designed to compare, contrast, and judge (e.g. bigger than, less than, etc)
  • Driven by this, and likely as a result of setting these near impossible standards and fearing not reach them, self-criticism often follows.

4. Attempts to AVOID fear of failure and self-criticism

  • Logically, we try to get away from these unpleasant feelings and thoughts
    • For example:
      • We might check our work excessively, or frequently seek reassurance from others that what we’re doing is correct
      • Or we might procrastinate as a way to avoid feeling the uncomfortable feelings that may come with a task

5. Uncomfortable physical sensations (that come with ‘failure’)

  • These sensations can be perceived throughout our bodies, such as a dropping in the stomach, a tightness in the chest, a pounding heart, etc.
  • But those sensations are unlikely to help us speak/think/perform at our best…

Summary of unhelpful perfectionism:

High standards + fear of failure = Uncomfortable feelings/sensations/thoughts when we have a (perceived) failure

… So, naturally, we change our behaviour to avoid this occurring.

So, what do you do about it?

  • One thing that Jennifer suggests is to think about our values. 
    • Once we’re clear on what these are, we can use them to help guide our behaviour.
  • Rather than finding ways to avoid the situations we fear, we should find ways to act in line with what we VALUE (what’s important to you). We don’t necessarily need to drop our standards, but we want what we do to be driven by what we value (rather than what we’re scared of).
  • So instead of striving to avoid ‘being incompetent’, we might strive to ‘use the best of our knowledge to help’.
    • This would hopefully reduce our feelings of ‘failure’ when we try our best but things don’t go ‘perfectly’. We’re still acting in line with our values, and we’re still driven to learn and improve! Ultimately, we create more freedom to move in directions that are truly important to us.

For more information and strategies to reduce unhelpful perfectionism, see:


ACT: Root to Fruit Podcast – episode #23 with Jennifer Kemp

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