At the end of this module, you will:

  • Learn more about unrelenting standards

  • Learn about the unrelating standards schema

  • Develop a plan for managing standards

What are unrelenting standards?

We prefer to use the term ‘unrelenting standards’ as there are a number of common misconceptions around the more familiar term of ‘perfectionism’. Being considered a ‘perfectionist’ is often misapplied and can be misleading that you strive for and actually achieve ‘external perfection’. Often individuals’ who experience perfectionism don’t identify with this description or connect this with their pattern of thinking or behaviour.

Perhaps let’s start with some of the statements below. Do any of these resonate with you?
  • My happiness is determined by the quality of my performance and successes (in most things I do – (i.e., work, parenting, exercise, appearance, relationships)
  • I feel that I need to be the best at what I do and exceed expectations
  • I feel that whatever I do, it is never quite good enough for me.
  • I feel guilty that I feel tired and my body wants to rest
  • I feel guilty and that I am wasting time when I sit down and rest because there are things I could be doing to be productive.
  • I am often afraid of rejection, letting down or disappointing others

If they do, there is a strong possibility that you may struggle with unrelenting personal standards.Unrelenting standards can operate in a very subtle way, and left undetected can undermine your emotional and mental health and wellbeing. As indicated in the statements above, not meeting these standards can leave you feeling anxious, uneasy, irritable and emotionally drained.

We will address some of the factors that can drive these standards and how they developed over-time (as a coping mechanism) shortly, however it is important to recognise that these standards that have driven your behaviour have mostly likely worked for you for a long period of time. They ensure your value in your relationships with other people, in the workplace, socially and romantically, because you always achieve/deliver, and you are responsible, reliable, thoughtful, dedicated and driven.

All are very admirable attributes. But they have a dark side. And it shows up when you can’t sustain or maintain these standards for living.

When we encounter a life context such as an illness, injury, change in our health and/or change in our life circumstances (i.e., becoming a parent, higher responsibilities at work) we often struggle to maintain these standards that we hold for ourselves across all areas of our life. It is under these circumstances that levels of stress, anxiety, and hyper-self-criticism can quickly escalate.

Individuals’ can feel as though everything is spiraling out of control and this can throw them into a cycle of fatigue and exhaustion. During these times, offers to help don’t feel ‘helpful’ but overwhelming (it is impossible to delegate), and any attempts to help you make you feel more like you are further losing control (and then guilty you should be ‘grateful’ for the help). In most circumstances the person trying to help you won’t do the task to your standard, or the most challenging situation is when people start to tell you “it doesn’t matter”, “let it go”, “it isn’t important”. At this point, most individuals will notice a change in their mood, they may withdraw and feel a sense of agitation and irritability as it seems no one understands and you are the only one who seems to care!

When recovering from an illness or change in your health, it can be especially difficult as you will often be receiving advice from your healthcare team or family that you need to ‘be flexible’, ‘pace yourself’, ‘take it easy’ and explore ways to break things down into more ‘manageable goals’. For a person with unrelenting standards “using your spoons” (this is a pacing analogy) is impossible as the have to do’s will always take priority over what is most meaningful.

Sound Familiar?

If this experience sounds familiar to you, we would encourage you to read on further to better understand what the Unrelenting Standards Schema is, its possible origin and how you might manage it.

What is the unrelenting standards schema ?

The Unrelenting Standards Schema is defined as:

“The underlying belief that one must strive to meet very high internalised standards of behaviour and performance, usually to avoid criticism. Typically results in feelings of pressure or difficulty slowing down; and a hypercritical nature toward oneself and others. Must involve significant impairment in: pleasure, relaxation, health, self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, or satisfying relationships”.

Unrelenting standards typically present as one or more of the following:

  • Perfectionism: inordinate attention to detail, rigid structures and personal rules, underestimation of how good one’s own performance is relative to the norm; and over-critical evaluation of one’s behaviour or performance.

  • Rigid rules and “shoulds” in many areas of life, including unrealistically high moral, ethical, cultural, or religious precepts;

  • Preoccupation with time and efficiency, so that more can be accomplished.”

  • Excessive and disproportionate feelings of guilt and shame around making mistakes, not meeting expectations or disappointing others.

Living with an unrelenting standards schema

This schema may affect your life in many ways. The impact can be significant leading to exhaustion, burnout and difficulty experiencing joy and having fun. Emotionally, it may prevent you from meeting needs such as:

  • Connection and Intimacy – it’s hard to be in a relationship with someone who has unrelenting standards because they are rarely present in the moment. You are constantly thinking about what you have done and what you still need to do. This may lead to workaholism. Individuals may also make their partners feel as though they are never measuring up.
  • Relaxation and Spontaneity – you may miss out on having fun, feeling joy and contentment. Due to this, you can be susceptible to feelings of emptiness, loneliness and depression in the long term.
  • Physical wellbeing – due to constant stress, you may be prone to a range of health issues (i.e., headaches, increased pain, gastrointestinal issues) or other consequences such as poor quality sleep.

What are the factors that lead to this pattern of thinking and behaviour?

Family background or the dynamics of your family of origin has a key role in this pattern of thinking and behaviour. It tends to develop in families which equate your worth as a person to your achievements alone or families that promote ‘working hard’ or always striving to do better than your last best . Little importance may have been placed on your mental health, emotions, social life and being able to relax.

It also comes from families which tend to focus on providing criticisms rather than praise. This would then lead to an individual feeling as if he/she has not done well enough. This results in them growing up with the feeling that they could have always done better. The individual will focus on over-achieving or performing to try to secure praise (that never comes) or out of trying to avoid criticism or failing to meet expectations.

Another family dynamic relates to having a parent (or significant adult such as a teacher) that may have withheld feedback or withheld praise (not sure if you made them happy or did ‘good enough’). This can lead to feelings of anxiety and confusion in a young child who is left unsure about whether they have pleased their parent or teacher, leading to patterns of people pleasing and overachieving or performing to avoid the risk of not meeting expectations.

TIPS: What is the best way to manage it?

  • Acknowledge that changing your standards will be challenging and try to disengage from feelings of guilt and self-frustration (this will take some time!).
  • Share with your family or healthcare team that you struggle with unrelenting standards and so it can be difficult to adjust your goals, expectations and change your behaviour – try to find a ‘middle ground’ in expectations rather than trying to get others to agree to your standards or disengage/avoid the person or behaviour you need to change because you are having difficulty accepting their proposed standard.
  • Enjoying your successes can be very difficult, especially if you feel that you have had to compromise or lower the bar. Individuals’ who do reduce self-expectations can then struggle with feeling the reward or psychological satisfaction of what they have achieved. Changing your self-talk is key here! For example; “I don’t feel especially rewarded by the 20 minute walk I did total because of the standard I have set for myself in the past, but at least I am doing something towards my health value”.
  • Be aware of your body! Managing your body whilst you are changing your self-talk can be another task! Notice feelings and sensations associated with anxiety such as tightness in the chest, tensions, feeling close to tears, surges or waves of dread/overwhelm, clenching your jaw, holding your breath, or feeling ‘touchy’ in a non-judgemental way.
  • Developing some simple breathing techniques such as box breathing or how to use the STOPP technique can help you better regulate the physical overwhelming or sensations (i.e., panic) you might experience in response to feeling you aren’t meeting your standards.
  • Lean in to the moment! Take a step back and try to see if you can identify what is most important to you in the situation – ask yourself what you would really like to do? Often we push down what we really want to do in the situation as the pressure or urgency to do a task over being part of an experience is built on the belief that you; (1) don’t have time, (2) it won’t get done if you don’t do it now, or (3) that you can’t relax until you know the task has been completed.

Response: “Well, I would like to be having fun with the kids and sitting on the floor playing, but the washing is out of control and it is going to rain tomorrow, I can’t relax right now as the house is a mess and everything is out of control”.

When we push down what we want in the situation, we often end up feeling irritable, angry or resentful that no one is helping us so we can be a part of the experience or we are told “don’t worry about it”.

Replace with: “I am feeling anxious and on edge as things feel really out of control at the moment and I am afraid of losing control. I would really like to stop what I am doing and join my partner and the kids. I will find it difficult but I am going to see what happens if I take 10 minutes out and then come back to this task”.

  • Speak with a psychologist – if you feel that unrelenting standards might be impacting your quality of enjoyment, your mood or your relationships, it can be helpful to work with a psychologist to try to address some of the themes and strategies suggested using different approaches such as ACT Therapy, CBT, and/or Schema Therapy. Your GP can complete a Mental Health Care Plan and refer you to someone in your local area.

Key Takeaways

  • Unrelenting standards can operate in a very subtle way, and left undetected can undermine your emotional and mental health and wellbeing

  • It is important to recognise that these standards that have driven your behaviour have mostly likely worked for you for a long period of time

  • Understand the unrelenting standards schema

  • Acknowledge that changing your standards will be challenging and try to disengage from feelings of guilt and self-frustration (this will take some time!).

  • There are number of strategies that can be implemented to help manage unrelenting standards

Resources and Further Reading

Below are some useful resources to help with managing unrelenting standards:

  • STOPP Technique
  • Box Breathing 
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