On the surface, perfectionists seem to possess an abundance of admirable qualities: they are exceptionally driven, detail-oriented, and highly motivated. But the flawless image they present to others may actually be masking serious distress.
“One of the big concerns about perfectionists is they often put on a front,” says Dr. Gordon Flett, a psychologist at York University. Outwardly they appear perfect, “but their internal world is filled with self-doubt and self-criticism. They may be hiding negative feelings, so no one knows they’re in jeopardy.”
Extreme perfection can cause a slew of health problems, including anxiety, burnout, eating disorders, depression, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts. Worse still, recent studies suggest young adults may be more perfectionistic than previous generations — and it is taking a toll on their health.
Why Is Perfection A Problem?
Flett began studying perfectionism more than 30 years ago. He makes a strong case for the potential harm of striving for perfection and how it can affect our physical and mental health.
Being perfectionistic, a workaholic, or busy all the time is held up as a virtue. But perfectionism doesn’t always lead to success or happiness. “People who are perfectionistic are never satisfied, even when they’re very highly accomplished,” says Flett. They often feel they could have done something more, or worked faster or better.
“The key distinction that is made is between striving for excellence versus striving for perfection,” says Flett. After achieving their goal, a perfectionist may still feel disappointed.
“Perfectionism is largely about stress,” says Flett. “Even when things are not stressful, the extreme perfectionist finds a way to make it stressful either for themselves or for other people.”
Flett is not alone in warning of the perils of perfectionism. A meta-analysis by Dr. Thomas Curran, of the London School of Economics, and Dr. Andrew Hill, of York St. John University, studied perfectionism in more than 40,000 university-level students in the U.S., U.K., and Canada for nearly 30 years. They found a drastic increase in perfectionism over time — students nowadays are far more perfectionistic than college students were in the early 2000s.
The authors believe perfectionism is often driven by lacking self-confidence. Perfectionists have a need for validation and become preoccupied with demonstrating their worth to others. “At the root of it, perfectionists have an unrealistic expectation of what their perfectionism will do,” says Flett. They often feel like “imposters” and believe their flawless performance will make people see them differently.
Typically, perfectionists have a rigid, all-or-nothing mentality. “I’ve seen some exceptional students fall by the wayside because they’re either holding themselves to these impossible standards or they feel that people are doing that for them,” says Flett, who worked as an undergraduate director in psychology. For example, a student might procrastinate and not turn in a paper on time, thinking it’s not up to par.
And it’s not limited to excelling in a single area. “Extreme perfectionists want to be perfect across the board in everything all the time, whether it’s achievement, relationships, grooming, appearance, family,” says Flett. They cling to a concept of “the perfect life” — at any cost.
Three Types Of Perfectionism
So, what is causing extreme perfectionism?
More than 30 years ago Flett and his colleague, Dr. Paul Hewitt, defined three dimensions of perfectionism, which are still considered the gold standard:
- Self-oriented perfectionism is when you set unrealistic expectations for yourself
- Socially prescribed perfectionism is when you feel others are holding you to impossibly high standards
- Other-oriented perfectionism is when you put other people under pressure to perform to your standards.
In their research, Curran and Hill found that all three were increasing, but socially prescribed perfectionism — the most destructive type — has risen most dramatically. There are probably various reasons for this trend, including parental and cultural influences. To some extent, perfectionistic behavior may also be inherited, as studies on eating disorders suggest, although this wouldn’t explain such a sharp increase.
Social media also likely plays a role because it allows people to buy into the notion of a perfectible life. At the same time, people worry about making a mistake, as it could be broadcast instantly around the world.
There is some evidence that the trend starts well before college. One study found that more than half of high school students said they felt under pressure to be perfect. “It’s alarming in terms of the number of young people who say they feel they have to be perfect,” says Flett.
Pandemic Meets Perfectionism
No one could have seen the pandemic coming. Yet for perfectionists’ self-blame may still be a go-to personality style: “I should’ve known this could happen” or “Why wasn’t I prepared?”
“Given a perfectionist’s need for certainty and predictability and control, it’s going to be problematic for so many of them,” says Flett. He published a paper with Hewitt, in the Journal of Concurrent Disorders, on the dangers of the pandemic for perfectionists.
People in certain professions may be especially vulnerable: medical personnel, restaurant owners, the self-employed, and others. There are also reports of increasing mental health issues among college students who are studying remotely and in isolation.
“If people are already dealing with a problem related to anxiety, depression, or physical health, the added element of the pandemic on top of that — exacerbating it — is going to put people more at risk,” says Flett.
So, what can we do — as perfectionists and friends of perfectionists — to make life during the pandemic less challenging?
“Perfectionists don’t take into account the fact that everybody’s struggling,” says Flett. “There is something to be said for realizing that we’re all in this together.” And, while stress is an uncontrollable event, you can control how you react. “Learning how to be self-soothing and self-compassionate instead of self-critical is vital,” he says. “People need to learn to ease up on themselves.”
Perfectionists can also direct their energy outside of themselves by volunteering. “Try to find more balance in life by contributing to the well-being of others through volunteering activities when it’s safe to do so.”
Still, some people are in situations or jobs that demand precision. “The key is to try to find ways to not beat yourself up and not internalize when mistakes are made,” he says. Remember that “nobody’s perfect” and you also don’t have to be constantly perfect.
Unfortunately, after the pandemic is over, perfectionists may have a tendency to increase their expectations. “When perfectionists have experienced a setback, once they get to set their own goals, they push their expectations up even higher,” says Flett. His concern is that some perfectionists may say, “Now I need to make up for lost time, I need to push myself even more, I need to set my standards even higher.”
Embrace Lifelong Learning
Flett is currently working on a new book on perfectionism in which he discusses, among other things, the importance of having a “growth mindset,” an idea developed by Dr. Carol Dweck. He has the following advice for perfectionists.
Realize that nothing is set in stone. “You can learn from your mistakes,” he says. “Perfectionists have a tendency to have a ‘fixed mindset’ and they often see mistakes and failures as a reflection of personal shortcomings. Try to reorient it to ‘everybody’s got something to learn.’ The notion of lifelong learning has a lot of validity to it.”
Be kind to yourself. “Famous people maybe seem great or flawless, but they actually had to cope with failure along the way,” says Flett. “The number of times the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling got rejected, for instance — it shows the importance of being resilient, bouncing back and not being too hard on yourself.”
Get a sense of perspective. You may not be able to do something right now, but that doesn’t mean you never will. Acknowledge that life is not perfect, nor is it always easy. If things are not working out according to plan, give yourself time and don’t put yourself down.
Embrace challenges. Ask yourself what you have gained and what you have discovered about yourself during the pandemic. “You’re not a finished product,” says Flett. “There is much to still be learned.”
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