Do you feel you have to do the best you can in everything? Maybe you find it easy to find fault with your work, no matter how hard or long you’ve worked on it? Or perhaps you find it difficult to relax knowing how many more things you still have to do? If so, you might have the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema.
To answer any questions you may have regarding this schema, this article will cover the following topics:
The unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema is one of 18 early maladaptive schemas (EMS). People with this schema tend to have unrealistically high standards in relation to behavior and performance. This can lead them to being very critical of themselves and sometimes others. They may experience constant feelings of pressure and stress, which can be exacerbated during periods of relaxation.
The unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema is one example of an early maladaptive schema (EMS). If you wish to learn more about this maladaptive schema, as well as the 17 others, check out our article, “The Ultimate Guide to Early Maladaptive Schemas.”
In general, early maladaptive schemas develop in childhood when a primary caregiver is not attuned to their child’s needs. Typically, the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema develops for one of two reasons. The first of these is because the child was expected to meet high standards set by their caregivers. These standards are often related to achievement, behavior, performance, or ethics. Meeting these standards was valued far above fun, relaxation, or developing close connections. In this case, the child may have learned that receiving their caregivers’ love and attention was conditional upon how well they performed in these areas.
Alternatively, the child may have grown up with overly critical caregivers; they may have received little praise and had their efforts shamed or criticized. The child may have grown up with the constant feeling that they could have done better or achieved more, therefore, this schema develops to protect the child from criticism. Similarly, this schema can develop in order to counteract feelings of defectiveness unconnected to caregivers, e.g. poverty, social status, disability, or race.
It is common in both of these cases that such caregivers also have the same schema and thus model the behaviors they learned as a child to their children. As such, these children learn that it is right to have unrealistically high standards and to work hard to achieve them, even to your own personal detriment.
Having the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema means valuing the achievement of unrealistic high standards to the detriment of personal wellbeing. As such, many individuals with this schema are successful within their working careers. Thus, their behavior may outwardly appear as being motivated by external reward. This is not the case; individuals with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema are motivated by their own internal standards.
Additionally, it may seem like the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema is similar to the failure schema. However, whereas those with the failure schema feel they have performed below average, those with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema feel they have performed averagely, but should be able to do better.
The signs of the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema in childhood and adulthood are as follows:
Children with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema tend to have higher standards than their peers. Unable to handle their frustration as skillfully as an adult would, such children may be prone to temper tantrums whenever they are unable to meet their standards. They may blame themselves for being unable to achieve what they wanted and feel bad about themselves.
Being less able to handle their frustration when things do not happen as they expect may also lead them to being more demanding and bossy with other children, meaning they likely find it difficult to make friends. However, they may prefer to play alone over playing with others that do not meet their standards.
Adults with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema tend to be preoccupied with what they think they should be doing in many areas of their lives. Their idealistic standards are often unrealistic and unachievable. Despite this, they will try their best to meet their standards. Sometimes this can involve high attention to detail, perfectionism, and needing to be the best at what they are doing. Due to this high level of internal stress, it is not uncommon for these individuals to procrastinate and avoid activities they feel they will not perform well in. This is, in part, because they underestimate how good their performance is in comparison to the average.
Typically, individuals with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema will find fault in their work regardless of how long or how hard they have worked on it. As such they are often unhappy with the outcome, and failing to feel a sense of achievement, do not celebrate their efforts. They may move their attention quickly onto the next task that needs to be accomplished hoping that this one will be different. Due to this behavioral pattern, individuals with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema tend to be very successful within their careers. This may mean it will take longer to recognize that this success has come at the expense of personal happiness.
People with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema tend to feel that they do not have enough time to achieve everything they need to in order to attain their standards. Therefore, they may become preoccupied with efficiency and undervalue relaxation time.
It is common when unrealistic and high standards are not met, that those with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema experience anger, irritation and frustration, both towards themselves and others. It can also result in feelings of incompetence, disappointment, and shame. In some cases, the individuals may give up trying to achieve their standards, resulting in self-loathing.
As it’s name suggests, the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema also leads to hypercriticalness. Not only can this hypercriticalness be internally directed, it can also be directed towards others, especially one’s partner and children. Over time, this may result in being abandoned by others, as their hypercriticalness has made their loved ones feel inadequate or uncomfortable. However, this may not cause feelings of hardship as the individual with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema may find it difficult to rely on others because they do not act in the way they expect them to.
Additionally, interpersonal relationships may suffer due to the individual’s overwhelming need to work beyond normal times and expectations, leading to their loved ones feeling undervalued and underappreciated. Furthermore, as they feel unable to relax or have fun, the individual may feel very tense and guilty during restful times. Joyful activities may become an ordeal to be endured before returning to more productive activities–leading to feelings of emptiness, burnout, and overwhelm.
Due to their suppression of emotions and spontaneous behavior, someone with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema may feel a great deal of stress in their everyday lives. This can increase the risk of developing numerous medical conditions, from stomach complaints and high blood pressure to heart problems, cancer, and auto-immune diseases. In order to cope with this stress, such individuals may develop unhealthy coping strategies; such as binge eating, and drug and alcohol misuse.
People with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema often fall into one of three ways of coping when triggered; avoidance, overcompensation, or surrendering.
Those with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema may try to deal by avoiding anything that triggers it. Typically they may do this by avoiding activities in which they feel compelled to do well in. This may take the form of avoiding certain leisure activities, but it may also impact their working lives. For example, it is common for someone with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema to be given a work project and become so overwhelmed by their own standards that it results in procrastination. Alternatively, if the individual feels more pressure within their personal lives than professional, they may choose to avoid close, intimate relationships.
It is uncommon for people with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema to overcompensate for their beliefs. However, if they do, they may act in ways contrary to their belief that they should adhere to their unrealistic and strict internal standards. This might look like purposefully giving a poorer performance than they feel they should or prioritizing relaxation over being productive.
Some may deal with their unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema by surrendering to it. These people have surrendered to the belief that they should achieve their unrealistic and rigid internal standards in order to fuel their self-worth. If they have an intimate relationship they may have a tendency to attract, and be attracted to, individuals with their own unrelenting high standards. This means their partners are similarly difficult to please, reinforcing their schema that they need to try harder.
Those with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema may need help becoming more self-compassionate and with assessing whether their current internal standards are helpful. Schema Therapy focuses on early childhood experiences and the therapeutic relationship in order to question maladaptive schemas, like the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema. It is important to note that while maladaptive schemas are tricky to change, with perseverance, consistency, and appropriate help, it is entirely possible to improve
Challenge your rationale
The single most helpful thing you can do to change your schema is to notice when it is active. This may be difficult as you might not realize that your standards are unrealistic or rigid. Think about which areas of your life feel unbalanced right now; consider the positives and negatives in continuing in this way. Now imagine your life if you lowered your standards slightly. What would be the positives and negatives of doing this? Would the consequences be as severe as you expect? A beneficial tool is to think of success as being on a scale from poor to perfect rather than all-or-nothing. For example, if you are throwing a birthday party, can you accept it as a success if it goes OK rather than perfectly?
Be more curious about the standards of other people. Find yourself a safe and supportive friend that seems to balance their life well. If you are questioning whether you may be enforcing an unrealistic standard on yourself, ask them what they think is a “good enough” performance in this circumstance. Over time and with practice your standards should become more reasonable and achievable.
Slow down and relax
It is common for those with the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema to try to accomplish more tasks than they have time for. Once you are no longer aiming for ultimate efficiency, try doing less tasks and mindfully appreciate the process of engaging in them. In a similar vein, take some time to relax.
Slowing down and taking some time for yourself may feel particularly difficult and self-indulgent, but it’s important to do so regardless; you are unable to function at your healthiest without relaxation and rest. Schedule in times to take breaks throughout your day and at the weekends. At the beginning, commit to activities that bring you enjoyment but are also hard to cancel. For example, you could schedule to meet a friend for an exercise class that requires pre-booking. With practice, you will be able to schedule in relaxation time without consciously needing to ensure that you can’t back out.
Be kind to yourself
Changing a schema is hard work, so treat yourself with kindness during this time. Notice when your inner voice becomes negative and actively remind yourself that this voice is coming from your schema. You may feel guilty and selfish at being less productive and put together, but this is normal at the start. Once you become more aware of how often you are being self-critical or unrealistic with your standards, try to work out how much time you are devoting to this type of negative thinking. The answer may be overwhelming. Try to accept that this is just your current way of thinking and that by being kinder to yourself, it will change over time. One way of learning to accept this is through meditation and mindfulness practices as these will help you to accept your humanity–warts and all.
Celebrate Yourself for Who You Currently Are
“In this life, if you don’t celebrate yourself, nobody will.”
It is very easy to become so focused on your next goal that you completely forget to celebrate achieving your last one. Take a moment to reflect on how far you have come and make a list of your achievements. This is not just a list of accolades or awards–although be sure to include them too–instead its also a list of obstacles you have overcome and times when you have worked hard. Recognize these achievements and reward yourself.
If you have the unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness schema, you may need help reassessing what achievable goals are. You may also need assistance in dealing with negative self-talk. The best place to receive this help is from within a therapeutic relationship. While treatment cannot necessarily “cure” you, it can give you the tools to better manage your thoughts and feelings, leading you to a happier and more balanced life.
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