4 steps to break the spell of unrelenting standards schema and perfectionism.




Unrelenting standards schema is the feeling of pressure that comes from perfectionism, the feeling that nothing is ever good enough, with the constant demand to do more making you feel flawed. It comes from experiencing unreasonable demands in childhood.


A June 2022 study appearing in Personality and Social Psychology compared perfectionism to just working with set goals for excellence, and found surprising results: Perfectionism leads to worse outcomes, not better. In fact, other studies reveal that, not only does perfectionism bring worse results, it also can make you miserable and that your life is lacking in creativity and less fulfilling (Brown and Beck, 2002).


The good news is that you can transform perfectionism into a striving for excellence that makes you feel good about yourself, rather than drained and self-critical. The trick is starting with the source of your perfectionism: the unrelenting standards schema.


Surprising Results

In the study, “Because Excellencism Is More Than Good Enough: On the Need to Distinguish the Pursuit of Excellence from the Pursuit of Perfection,” (Gaudreau, et al. 2022), the authors demonstrate two huge points:

  1. There is a difference between being a perfectionist and striving for excellence.
  2. Those who strive for excellence, and stop when they hit their goals, perform better than perfectionists.


So what’s the difference between perfectionism and “excellencism?” (Guadreau, et al. 2022 p. 1118)



Sounds good, right? Who doesn’t want to be on “team excellencism?” Well, in the hands of a perfectionist, the “excellencism” idea pretty quickly just turns into more perfectionism, with a new word. The authors very appropriately explore the next challenge: how to hold high standards without drifting back into perfectionist anxiety. It turns out that excellencism speaks for itself. The authors studied college students with perfectionist tendencies and compared them to non-perfectionist, flexible, but well-performing peers. The results clearly showed that excellencism builds motivation, while perfectionism makes life harder.


Student grade point averages were the proof that:


If you have high, but realistic standards, reach them, and move on, you have better results, feel better about yourself, and are motivated to continue. If you are a perfectionist, nothing ever feels good enough, and motivation suffers, leading to worse results.


If you can just have set standards and let go of the perfectionist idea that you can always do better, you will see better results. You have proof, which keeps you going on a positive feedback loop.


The problem is, you feel perfectionism in your body, like a restlessness and dread, and worry you aren’t good enough, and you become addicted to trying harder. So how to overcome that feeling?


Where Perfectionism Comes From: Unrelenting Standards Schema

The core problem with perfectionism is that you never feel good enough. And trying to be better is a promise you make to yourself that one day you’ll feel relief, and good about yourself. The problem is, that day never comes!


This experience may come from a childhood where you were somehow made to believe that you weren’t good enough just as you are. This may have happened because you had parents with unrelenting standards themselves. It may have happened because unreasonable demands were put on you, like having to provide for yourself or younger siblings in ways you weren’t ready to. It may have happened because approval felt transactional: you got praise only when you succeeded, never for just being you.


Recent studies show that for AAPI and Latino individuals, pressure to perform is a more engrained part of family culture, where your performance reflects on both you and your family, which can lead to perfectionism (Fung, et al. 2022) Also, African Americans may struggle with an idea of inferiority broadcast in the atmosphere of anti-black racism, leading to a perfectionism only complicated by structural violence (Elion, et al. 2012).


Unrelenting standards schema begins at the pre-verbal level, as you take in the non-verbal case of attachment, before you are fully comfortable with expressing yourself through talking. This means that perfectionism is felt in the body, as much as it goes along with perfectionist thinking.


4 Steps to Overcome Perfectionism


Source: Psychology Today.

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