The Anxious Perfectionist by Clarissa W. Ong and Michael P. Twohig uses an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) approach to help readers who struggle with perfectionism. I’m a big fan of ACT, and I think it makes a great approach for perfectionism.
The book begins by exploring what perfectionism is, including the differences between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. While adaptive perfectionism involves pushing oneself in order to gain rewards and finding meaning in the process, maladaptive perfectionism is about self-criticism, rigid adherence to rules/expectations/standards, and focusing on outcomes, with mistakes or failures being used to determine self-worth.
The authors explain that no matter how smart you are, you can’t problem-solve your way out of thoughts and function. Rather than trying to use logic or seeking coherence (trying to come up with explanations for things), they suggest focusing on the functionality of different thoughts. Regardless of whether a thought is true or not, is it doing anything for you or helping you get where you want to be? If not, then it’s not particularly useful to focus on, even if it is true.
The book talks about acceptance as an alternative to avoidance, saying that emotional avoidance shrinks the space in which you live your life. The authors liken trying to avoid feelings as a human to trying to swim in the ocean without getting wet.
There’s a chapter on letting go of the self-labels you use and the self-stories you tell to go along with perfectionism’s rules and reasons. The book talks about how these can give rise to shoulds, and looks at how to differentiate between values and shoulds. Readers are encouraged to frame have to‘s as actually being choices and then make those choices based on values rather than rules and threats.
There’s also a chapter on shifting focus from outcomes to process. Attention is described as a spotlight on your mind’s stage. Thoughts are presented as different actors vying for attention, and sometimes getting loud and obnoxious while they’re at it. Trying to play director and force them into line doesn’t work, as you can’t control what they’re doing, but you can control what you shine the spotlight on. This theme of not being able to control your thoughts and emotions runs throughout the book; the focus is on what you do with those thoughts and emotions. That’s something I really like about ACT, and I think it makes a really good alternative for people who don’t like the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approach to trying to manage thoughts.
The book addresses self-compassion, and self-kindness is framed as a relative thing rather than an absolute based on your reasons for doing the behaviour. The authors explain that self-kindness in the context of perfectionism is often just allowing yourself to make mistakes, and they point out that “The very self-criticism for which self-kindness is an antidote keeps you from giving and receiving self-kindness.” They also suggest that you may be afraid of being nice to yourself out of fear of what might happen if you were to give up the “not good enough” narrative, which I thought was really insightful.
Goal-setting is discussed in the context of living the life you want to live, and the authors offer strategies to help with making behaviour changes. They suggest reframing your I’m too busy‘s as I’m not willing to make time to…
I thought this was a fantastic book. There’s no just think positive nonsense, and I liked how realistic the authors are about the limitations in what you can do to change what comes into your head. I also liked that they gave examples of their own perfectionistic tendencies. ACT is big on metaphors, and I thought the ones that the authors came up with were really effective. Overall, I was really impressed, and I highly recommend this book.
The Anxious Perfectionist is available on Amazon (affiliate link).
I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.