Great Expectations: Unattainable Standards Harm Your Life and Your Relationships

by Nancy Travers,LCSW

Everyone has expectations. In fact, everyone hopes that they can achieve the best in their endeavors. However, some of us take our expectations too far. Having goals and standards is healthy; they keep us motivated to achieve and pursue our dreams. High standards motivate us to do our best. Some people, “perfectionists,” can take high standards too far. A perfectionist is someone who has such high standards that they may be unattainable for most people. Often, these high standards cause undue stress on the individual as they try to meet these unattainable standards; this stress and fear of failure can often hold them back from pursuing new opportunities, making contributions to projects at work, or assuming a leadership or managerial position.
Of course, people who describe themselves as perfectionists have some great qualities and habits. They are often very adept at getting projects and tasks done at work and around their homes. They\’re often dedicated to their jobs. However, these overachieving tendencies do not always translate into a happy relationship. People who set unattainable standards often have trouble in intimate relationships and marriage. Perfectionists set such high standards for themselves that their partners can feel the stress from these expectations. Perfectionists also usually impose similar standards on their partners and loved ones; this is a new source of stress and frustration for partners who feel that they cannot meet these expectations. Paul Hewitt, Ph.D. explains, “If you require your spouse to be perfect, and you\’re critical of that spouse, you can tell right away that there\’s going to be relationship problems.” One study even suggests that self-described perfectionists are more likely to use nagging and sarcasm to manage their relationship short-comings. These strategies, as well as other forms of outward negativity, lead both partners to feel dissatisfied with their relationship.
For some individuals, perfectionism and extreme standards are manageable problems that can be tackled without professional help. If living up to your own expectations causes you undue stress, consider these tactics to manage your expectations:

  • Recognize your tendencies: It can be easy to overlook many of the occasions during which you impose your standards. Before you can begin to change your views, you need to become aware of your patterns. Some people benefit from recording their “perfectionist thoughts,” while others feel better talking to a confident. Reviewing times when you feel that you have failed can help you gain perspective on the incident.
  • Analyze the costs of your high standards: Many people assume that their unattainable standards are effective, and that having them will ensure that they are successful. This is sometimes true, but what are the costs of these behaviors and thoughts? These thoughts have many negative consequences, including stress which can lead to health problems, mental problems, and emotional problems. Recognizing these problems may provide encouragement to be more lax with your demands of yourself and others.
  • Recognize the positives: When aiming to meet high standards, it is very easy to see occasions when you or others did not achieve the goal. Instead of focusing on what you did not gain, focus on what you did accomplish. Often, you will have performed very well by others\’ standards. It can be difficult to alter habits quickly, but often individuals can adjust one small step at a time. Make a conscious effort to notice everything that is good and admirable about your work and performance, and the achievements of those that you care about.
  • Focus on the process: Many people with high standards are very result-oriented, and overlook the many steps and successes necessary to achieve the end goal. One way to break dependence or focus on these high expectations is to spend more time considering the process. If you can break down a difficult process into smaller steps, you will often see more successes and be happier with your performance.
  • Learn to Handle and Accept Criticism: It can be a difficult realization that you, like everyone else, are not perfect. You will receive criticism at some point, and being prepared for this will help you be better handle the occasion. After all, not all criticism is bad. In fact, constructive criticism is an important part of growth; it provides important clues about how to improve your performance and hone your skills for future endeavors.

Nancy Travers is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in all types of relationships; We all want them, We all need them; How to get em and Keep them. Nancy’s office is located at 2212 Dupont Dr., Suite I, Irvine, Ca. 92612.

For more information or to make an appointment, call 949-510- 9423 or contact us.
copyright a division of Counseling Corner, Inc.
As seen in The Blade magazine June 2005.

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