I have been thinking about perfectionism.
Some of my friends won’t start a project or a piece of work because they believe it won’t “be perfect” – so they have a kind of “perfection paralysis”. Yet “perfectionism” runs much deeper than that this – and it can lead to serious problems in the lives of those prone to it. And worryingly, perfectionism is on the rise. So what is it and why does this rise matter?
Perfectionism is the desire to produce work, or to perform, to high standards – not necessarily a bad thing – yet, for perfectionists, any failure to meet such expectations can cause them to feel frustrated or angry or even that they can “never be good enough” – often leading them to “quit the field”; and worse, perfectionism is linked to the development of conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm… and it is linked to suicide.
You see perfectionists tend to “beat themselves up” for mistakes or for any failure to reach their high standards. Yet we know that for those striving to become elite performers in some field – maths, sport, performing arts etc – then it is important to practice just outside their current level of performance – making failure a part of the learning journey so that they are “stretched to improve”. I wrote some months ago about Shizuka Arakawa who worked to become an Olympic gold skater; yet she had, over the years, fallen on her butt some 20,000 times… and got up again. (https://carinasciences.com/2019/04/05/grit-perseverance-and-deliberate-practice/ )
IMO, it may not be “high standards”… but having “unrealistic short-term expectations” that cause perfectionists to react negatively to “coming up short”. Rather than see setbacks as an opportunity to learn and to focus on what needs to be righted, a perfectionist, may just see it as evidence that they can “never be good enough”.
So perfectionism is a problem for those who wish to make progress and is also bad for their mental wellbeing… and perfectionism is one the rise. Research shows around 40% of young adults exhibit perfectionist tendencies – like being concerned over mistakes, feeling like you are never good enough, having critical parents, or simply having high personal standards – and these tendencies can predict issues like depression, anxiety and stress.
Even worse, being self-critical leads to depression which makes self-criticism harsher – i.e. a downward spiral. Further, perfectionists are more likely to think about suicide; and that that nearly every perfectionistic tendency is correlated with “thinking about suicide more frequently”.
So why is Perfectionism growing? Well, failure is so severe in today’s society. Competition has been embedded in schools: parents are putting more pressure on themselves and on their children to achieve more and more… so that kids become averse to mistakes. Researcher Thomas Curran says “If children come to internalise the idea that we only can define ourselves in strict, narrow terms of achievement – then you see perfectionistic tendencies start to come in.” If Kids learn that they only get praised when they do something well; or that they’re only really worth something when they’ve had others’ approval; or if kids feel guilty for making a mistake… then these messages make children more likely to become perfectionists – and go on to develop depression.
Plus “Fear of Failure” is getting magnified in other ways… the rise of social media means that any mistake or poor results is so public.
So what can be done to if you are showing perfectionist tendencies? Well, it seems that the most important thing is to talk with others – to gain some objectivity and to set realistic short-term expectations; to recognise progress; and to accept that failure is an important part of learning and improvement. Maybe talk with a teacher, a coach or a friend about where you are; what you have learned from any recent setbacks and the short-term progress you now think it reasonable to make… so that you can reset your short-term expectations.
Secondly, you must show yourself some self-compassion – if a friend was trying to achieve something and failing, you would point out the positives, recognise their effort, suggest that they work on any weaknesses and encourage them by saying that you’re confident that, with effort, they will succeed. So why not offer this advice to yourself?
And finally, boost your self-esteem. Focus on the distance you have come – and bear in mind that your progress to date demonstrates how you will always improve will effort.