Book Review: The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism

Book cover: The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism by Jennifer Kemp

The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism by Jennifer Kemp aims to boost self-compassion and improve psychological flexibility using acceptance and commitment therapy. The author is a therapist who has dealt with perfectionism herself, and she incorporates her own experiences to provide examples of the concepts being covered. She had tried cognitive behavioural therapy and didn’t find it that helpful, but came across acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) while in grad school, and it made a big difference.

The author explains that perfectionism isn’t a personality trait; it’s learned. While at some point it may have been helpful, it can become destructive. It’s been linked to a number of mental disorders, and it can get in the way of the things that really matter to you.

One bit that was a turn-off for me was when the author was talking about the link between depression and perfectionism. She wrote that while depression is often treated as a medical condition, it’s mostly due to the way people live their lives. She cited Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections, which I’ve ranted about before. He’s a journalist, not a clinician or researcher, and Lost Connections was about his own ideas about depression. I just don’t think it’s an appropriate source to be citing as an authority on depression for a book like this. I was a bit dubious after reading that bit, but there were no further hiccups.

The book describes the processes that are part of perfectionism: setting excessively high and inflexible standards, a fear of failure, relentless self-criticism, and unhelpful avoidance. There’s an emphasis throughout on noticing and facing your discomfort rather than trying to hide from it, and the author reassured readers that fear isn’t a problem that you need to solve.

There are lots of good exercises to promote reflection, like assessing what your perfectionism is costing you and considering what short-term rewards might be reinforcing perfectionistic habits. I quite liked the exercises that were intended to show readers that you can’t control sensations, feelings, and thoughts, as well as the suggestions to promote willingness, like wearing mismatched socks all day, going to the gym with your shirt inside out, or going out without brushing your hair.

There was a chapter focused on building a life you live, using values as a guide. The book didn’t specifically mention the ACT life compass, but it used the same sort of approach.

Another chapter called “There Are No Quick Fixes” explored some common unhelpful strategies to target, including procrastination, working too hard, taking on too much, and seeking reassurance. The author encouraged readers to set goals based on values rather than emotions to feel or not feel or dead person’s goals.

The chapter on learning to be kinder to yourself addressed some common justifications for self-criticism and had exercises to explore how you learned to self-criticize.

Perfectionism is an important topic that I’m sure will be relevant to a lot of people, and acceptance and commitment therapy makes a really good choice of approach. I liked the author’s willingness to be vulnerable about her own experiences, and I thought the reflective questions were really well-formulated. I think this book could be really useful for anyone who’s struggling with perfectionism.

The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

The post Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Metaphors is where you can find all things ACT-related on MH@H, and What Is… Perfectionism is the hub for content on perfectionism.

24 thoughts on “Book Review: The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism”

  1. Interesting. I used to be a big perfectionist growing up. Like crying all the time if I didn’t get perfect grades even though my parents were normal and didn’t put crazy pressure on me. I thought I grew out of it, but I can kind of see how a lot of terrible behaviors and thought patterns that I have today are manifestations of perfectionism in different (and still terrible) ways.

  2. I still struggle with perfectionism, but not near as much. I have become a lot better at viewing things and situations with an approach to excellence. Something I do is when I’m creating something, if I’ve had a consistent approach with the same types of things in the past, I’ll revisit that and make allowances for errors. There are some mistakes that I think are important to fix and others that are ok being made. It’s just how I’m managing my perfectionism.

  3. I didn’t realise that mental health professions formally looked at perfectionism as a thing on its own (OCD, yes). Looks like important reflections. An academic version of “don’t sweat the small stuff”?!

    1. It’s more a psychology thing rather than a psychiatry thing, but it can feed into a number of different disorders.

      i guess it’s kind of like setting the high jump bar higher than anyone can possibly jump. If the standard is perfection, you’ll likely fail 99 times out of 100. I prefer a set the bar low and get over it most times kind of approach.

            1. My question was more along the lines of trying to clear up an ambiguity. I wasn’t sure if you meant the perfection itself is unfortunate, or if the fact that people tell me about it is unfortunate. I wasn’t thinking you were making any assumptions, I just wasn’t clear on your meaning.

  4. Got it. Well, people have been telling me I’m “too hard on myself” all my life. Half the people who say so have never done a lick of work in their lives and are totally lazy leisurely people who sit around doing nothing with their own lives, let alone any good for their communities or for the planet. So I’ve come to disregard their input.

    I do feel that if I hadn’t have been such a perfectionist, I would probably have a college degree. But that’s another story. When they say I’m a perfectionist as far as like, the recording of my music is concerned, I get pretty pissed. If the demo were decent, it would be shared far and wide. But nobody’s sharing it at all. It may be decent enough to be palatable to prospective producers. But it’s not the kind of thing people are going to share on their social media.

    In the process of gathering up $6000 USD so’s I can actually get this thing done right, hire people who will show up on time, and take the time necessary to produce a decent product without doing a rush-job. That’s not perfectionism – it’s integrity.

    Anyway end of rant.

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