Another day another Schema. Just two more to go! The one we’re covering today is especially relevant for me.
Typical Presentation of the Schema
People with this schema present as perfectionistic and driven. They believe that they must continually strive to meet extremely high standards. These standards are internalized; therefore, unlike the Approval-Seeking/Recognition-Seeking schema, people with the unrelenting Standards schema do not as readily alter their expectations or behaviors based on the reactions of others. These people strive to meet standards primarily because they “should,” not because they want to win the approval of other people. Even if no one were ever to know, most of these people would still strive to meet the standards. People often have both the Unrelenting Standards and Approval-Seeking/Recognition-Seeking schemas, in which case they seek both to me very high standards and to win external approval.
If I were to hazard a guess I’d say that my brother has both of these, where I only have the Unrelenting Standards schema. Ok, I may have some Approval-Seeking in there as well, but I think it’s highly overshadowed by my need to meet the standards I believe I should reach. No one sets standards for me. I do. If what I do is not perfect, it’s not good enough. If I am not perfect, I am not good enough. I’ll make elaborate dishes of food, costumes, etc., and if I think there’s even a chance of them not meeting the standard I think they should I’ll scrap it all and toss them right out.
It’s like I believe I’m only as good as my accomplishments.
The most typical emotional experienced by patients with the Unrelenting Standards schema is pressure. This pressure is relentless. Because perfection is impossible, the person must perpetually try harder. Beneath all the exertion, patients feel intense anxiety about failing – and failing means getting a “95” rather than a “100”. Another common feeling is hyper criticalness, both of themselves and of others. Most of these patients also feel a great deal of time pressure: There is so much to do and so little time. A common result is exhaustion.
This is perfectly me. When I was at University I would study from the time I woke up until I passed out in the Science and Engineering Library. If I received a homework assignment, quiz, or exam that wasn’t perfect I refused to let anyone know my score, even though I routinely scored higher than everyone else. Making any mistake at all filled me with shame that someone would judge my failing. Pressure. Everything feels like so much pressure. The anxiety starts in the pit of my stomach and seeps out through my pours until I’m weighted down by a wet blanket of my own expectations. The only relief is to be flawless…. Which never quite happens. Which always remains just out of reach.
It is difficult to have unrelenting standards, and it is often difficult to be with someone who has unrelenting standards. Another common feeling in people with this schema is irritability, usually because not enough is getting done quickly enough or well enough. Yet another common feeling is competitiveness. Most people who are classified as “type A” – that is, as demonstrating a chronic sense of time pressure, hostility, and competitiveness – have this schema.
Well I definitely have the irritability part down. If I ask someone to do something and it’s not done by precisely the time I need it done by, exactly how I need it to be done, I begin to fume. Consequently I tend to do a lot of things myself because at least I know I’ll do it right. Which doesn’t do anything to relieve the intense amount of pressure I already feel. However I am in no way competitive at all. Competition is the equivalent of being judged in my mind and I want to avoid judgments at all costs.
Often, people with the Unrelenting Standards schema are workaholics, working incessantly within the particular realms to which they apply their standards. The realms can be varied: school, work, appearance, home, athletic performance, health, ethics or adherence to rules, and artistic performance are some possibilities. In their perfectionism, these people often display inordinate attention to detail and often underestimate how much better their performance is relative to the norm. They have rigid rules in many areas of life, such as unrealistically high ethical, cultural, or religious standards. There is almost always an all-or-nothing quality to their thinking: People believe that either they have met the standard exactly or they have failed. They rarely take pleasure from success, because they are already focused on eh next task that must be accomplished perfectly.
People with this schema do not usually view their standards as perfectionistic. Their standards feel normal. They are just doing what is expected of them. In order to qualify as having a maladaptive schema, the person must have some significant impairment related to the schema. This could be a lack of pleasure in life, health problems, low self-esteem, unsatisfying intimate or work relationships, or some other form of dysfunction.
Lack of pleasure in life? Check. Low self-esteem? Check. Unsatisfying intimate or work relationships? Check. How about self-loathing? Or chronic disappointment? It’s funny, because I don’t view my standards as perfectionistic. I often say I don’t believe in perfection because to me perfection equates to stagnations. However, there’s always room to grow and improve. There’s always something more to learn. There’s always some way to make what I’m doing, better.
Goals of Treatment
The basic goal of treatment is to help people reduce their unrelenting standards and hyper criticalness. The goal is twofold: to get people to try to accomplish less, and to accomplish it less perfectly. Successfully treated people have more of a balance in their lives between accomplishment and pleasure. They play, as well as work, and do not worry as much about “wasting time” and feeling guilty about it. They take the time to connect emotionally to significant others and are able to allow something to be imperfect and still consider it worthwhile. Less critical of themselves and others, they are less demanding and more accepting of human imperfection, and are less rigid about rules. They come to realize that their unrelenting standards cost more than they gain: In trying to make one situation slightly better, they are making many other situations a lot worse.
Bleh. Accomplish less and accomplish less perfectly? This sounds horrid. I actually can not fathom why I would want to do this. How can someone love me if I’m flawed and not the best that I can be?
Strategies Emphasized in Treatment
It’s important for people to learn to challenge their perfectionism. They learn to view performance as lying on a spectrum from poor to perfect – with many gradations in between – rather than as an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Conducting cost-benefit analyses of perpetuating their unrelenting standards is also helpful. They ask themselves: “If I were to do things a little less well, or if I were to do fewer things, what would the costs and benefits be?” Here the advantages of lowering standards can be highlighted – all the benefits that would accrue to their health and happiness, all the ways they are suffering as a result of their unrelenting standards, and all the ways the schema is damaging their enjoyment of life and relationships with significant others. The cost of the schema is greater than the benefits: This conclusion is the leverage that can motivate a person to change. It’s also important to reduce the perceived risks of imperfection. Imperfection is not a crime. Making mistakes does not have the extreme negative consequences that people anticipate.
It feels like the consequences will be extreme though. If I feel like I’m not performing to the standard I should at work, I have a low lying dread that bubbles over into heart clenching anxiety that I will get fired. Taking breaks, taking lunch, this is all time I’m afraid someone will see me not working and I will get in trouble for because I am not utilizing every moment towards productivity. Don’t even try to convince me that taking vacation and sick days are ok. I feel guilty and like I’m practically guaranteed to get suspended or judged as being a slacker. And don’t even get me started about my appearance. Right now I am not at my ideal weight and I am hideous. I obsess and dwell on every perceived imperfection endlessly, regardless of the fact that no one else seems to see these things. I don’t want to go out in public if I’m not at my ideal place within my own skin.
The Unrelenting Standards schema seems to have two different origins, with different implications for treatment. The first and more common origin is the internalization of a parent with high standards.
The second origin of the Unrelenting Standards schema is as a compensation for the Defectiveness schema: People feel defective and then overcompensate by trying to be perfect.
I think I qualify for both here. I know I feel defective, however I also had a father that pushed us to constantly achieve bigger and better standards.
Special Problems with This Schema
The biggest obstacle by far is the secondary gain that comes from the schema: There are so many benefits to doing things so well. Many people with this schema are reluctant to give up their unrelenting standards because, to them, it seems that the benefits far outweigh the costs. In addition, many people are afraid of embarrassment, shame, guilt, and their own self-criticalness, if they do not live up to the standards. The potential for negative affect seems so high that they are reluctant to risk lowering their standards even a little bit. Moving slowly can help these people, as can closely evaluating the outcomes of lowering the standards.
Embarrassment. Shame. Guilt. Self-Criticalness. Yep. Having these standards for the things that I do is proof that I have something to offer people. If I have nothing to offer, why will people stick around? I inherently feel like I’m a bad person. Being able to do these things is a way of proving that I have some good in me. Something good to offer. Something to keep people around. Something to keep them from leaving. Something for others to value in me. Why would I want to “fix” this? Why would I want to diminish the things that make me of value to other people? Because the things that I can do for people does not actually comprise the entirety of my value. The few friends that I’ve talked to about this (Friend and Roommate) have told me that even if I were to never do any of the baking or cooking, or painting, or crafting, or whatever the things I do for other people, it wouldn’t change the fact that this is not all of who I am. They tell me I’m sweet, funny, loyal, an amazing listener, incredibly intelligent (with the most bizarre range of knowledge), caring… and all these other things. All these other things are the reasons people like having me around, not just because I make a killer pie. I don’t see it though. Or I do, but it’s lost in the shadow of my imperfections. You know the expression, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”? That’s how I feel about myself. I’m only as good as my worst flaw. And I’ve had a very flawed life. I think that’s the cost of being human though. I need to learn to let the past remain where it belongs, in the past. Maybe not forget it, definitely learn from it, but also let it go so I can move into the future with more knowledge that I can do things differently.