If you are having trouble sleeping, there’s lots of advice about things to can do to make your sleep better. But it’s a fine balance. Trying too hard can end up making your sleep worse. This becomes a particular problem for people who tend to want to get things right, are organised and have a tendency to perfectionism. For healthy sleep, we need to sleep well, but that means sleep being ‘good enough’ not perfect.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is often misunderstood for ‘being perfect’ or ‘doing something perfectly’. A lot of us assume that it must be a good thing, and in many aspects of your life attention to detail and getting things right is very helpful. However, other people think of being a perfectionist as being something negative, harmful and embarrassing and this can be the case with sleep.  

Although there’s no perfect definition, we understand perfectionism to involve three things:

  1. Relentless striving for extremely high standards for yourself and others that are personally demanding
  2. Judging your self-worth based primarily on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards
  3. Experiencing the negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the cost

Perfectionism involves putting pressure on ourselves to meet high standards, which powerfully influences how we think about ourselves. Researchers have shown that parts of perfectionism are helpful, and some are unhelpful. 

It is important to recognise that perfectionism is not bad at all. There are many good aspects to perfectionism – but we need to define when it is not helpful and when to ‘let things go’ and ‘accept’ that they may not be the way we wish them to be. This is an important perspective to apply to sleep, recognising when a tendency to perfectionism is making things worse and has become part of the problem.

Like Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Princess and the Pea, where a princess is given a bad night’s sleep when a Queen puts a pea under her mattress, when try to make sleep perfect, we can start to believe that we will not be able to sleep unless we create the perfect conditions for sleep and anything that may interfere with sleep has been eliminated from our bedroom.

How does perfectionism impact sleep?

Perfectionism is a personality factor strongly associated with chronic insomnia development, and perfectionism scores are also strongly associated with lower sleep quality in sleep studies – even in those without insomnia.

According to a Journal of Health Psychology study, maladaptive perfectionism was positively correlated with poor sleep quality in adolescents, mediated by worry and rumination. The researchers explored the mediating role of repetitive negative thinking in the relationship between perfectionism and adolescent sleep quality in a sample of 1664 Chinese adolescents. Having a bad night’s sleep is extremely common among adolescents, and perfectionism has been shown to play a significant role in adolescent personalities, including a strive for flawlessness and holding themselves to exceptionally high standards.

People with perfectionistic traits are more prone to engage in unusual behaviours when they suffer from short term sleep troubles. These behaviours, like napping, over-planning, and catching up on sleep, can inadvertently lead to the development of chronic insomnia. Often these behaviours become more and more complex over time and can become very limiting with people being cautious about going out in the evening for fear of what that might do to sleep. This can become particularly problematic once people have children and can no longer so carefully control their own routine. 

People with perfectionistic traits are also more prone to fear making mistakes and taking the wrong actions and decisions. If someone fears making mistakes and has unhelpful non-fact-based information about sleep, it can lead to a strong emotional investment in controlling sleep and fearing the consequences of poor sleep. This resultant sleep-related anxiety, may appears rational on the surface, but actually fuels insomnia.

How can I measure my tendency towards perfectionism?

You might not consider yourself a perfectionist, but many of us apply unrealistic standards to sleep, especially during these challenging times of pandemic. Sometimes, it is hard for us to answer questions such as “Did I sleep well?” “Am I a good sleeper?” These are yes or no questions, that can trigger you to think about sleep in all-or-nothing terms.

Most of us have a reasonable idea of our personality types, but if you want to measure your tendency towards perfectionism, you can use this online scale

What should I do?

If you recognise that, like many of us, you have perfectionistic traits and they may be impacting on your sleep, it is important to step back and look at how you are approaching sleep. Are you trying to hard? Has sleep become too important? If this is the case, some exercises you can do are:

  1. List all the things you do to try to optimise sleep. It might be a long list! Then challenge yourself to cross out one. If things don’t get worse, then after a while strike out another one and continue doing this until your sleep routine is simpler. There is more detail on this in this post.
  2. Consider your thoughts and beliefs about sleep? Is what you think about sleep really true or are they just beliefs? An example is someone who believes they need 8 hours sleep or they won’t be able to do their job. Yet despite sleeping only 6 hours per night for some years has been successful in their role and never had the quality of their work questioned. More detail on this is outlined in this post on cognitive therapy.

If you have tried these strategies and still need help, talk to your health professional as they will be able to direct you to more resources or refer you to experts for help.

Related links and posts:

Need more information on how you can sleep better?

At Sleephub we understand the struggle people endure with sleeping problems which is why we have created a comprehensive FAQs page with information for those seeking information about sleep disorders and potential solutions. You can also check out our extensive resources and subscribe to our podcast.

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