Uncovering the pitfalls of perfectionism, and why it’s seen a ‘substantial rise’ in recent years, plus six supportive hacks to lessen its impact
Most people want to do well in life. Whether that’s making a beautiful home, getting a promotion, or having joyful relationships. But what happens when you set the bar so high that nothing ever meets your impossible standards? When it comes to perfectionism, the outcome can often be anxiety, self-doubt, low self-esteem, and even depression.
A study of more than 40,000 British, US, and Canadian university students spanning 28 years, published in Psychological Bulletin, shows that perfectionism has seen a ‘substantial rise’, believed to be due to the highlight-reel nature of social media, and the globalisation of, well, everything.
In the past, we were only ever judged by those in our immediate, geographically local circle. But with increasing trade, jobs, and travel opportunities across the world, we have become more connected with the global population. This has exposed us to higher standards of perfection on a worldwide scale, as we compare ourselves to ideals that we didn’t have access to before.
What is perfectionism?
If you have perfectionism as a personality trait, you tend to pursue flawlessness and refuse to accept anything less. You may believe that perfectionism is a good thing, one that has served you well, and led to certain achievements in life, but research shows that performance and perfectionism are not related. In fact, perfectionism tendencies can indirectly impact performance in the long-term, because of the detrimental effect on your mental and physical health, as reported by D Harari et al in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The problem is that when perfectionists don’t reach their ideal, they see it as a reflection of who they are as a person. So instead of celebrating when they win second place, or receive a 98% pass mark, they mentally punish themselves for not being the best.
Do the following statements ring true for you?
. I set extremely high standards for myself.
. Failure is not an option for me.
. I am highly aware of my own shortcomings.
. If I can’t do it perfectly, I don’t want to do it at all.
. People say I spend too much time focused on small details.
. I struggle to hand tasks over to others.
. I only feel validated when others tell me I am ‘good’.
What causes perfectionism?
There isn’t one root cause of perfectionism, and it can be a combination of external factors (e.g. society, culture, childhood experiences, or parental expectations), and internal factors (e.g. craving control, low self-esteem, fear, or comparison). With a broadened awareness of how perfectionism shows up in your life, you can work towards a healthy balance of striving for excellence and coping with failure.
Keep a thought diary
Try keeping a journal where you note down any time you feel perfectionist tendencies creeping in. There’s no need to change behaviours at this point, just simply write down anything you consider noteworthy. For example, does it show up mostly at work? Or in your role as a parent? Perhaps some triggers make things worse, such as lack of sleep, conflict with your partner, or a busy schedule. Doing this regularly will help you see patterns, and pinpoint any lifestyle changes that may help.
Experiment with delegating
If you need perfect results, can you admit that you may not have the skills required to achieve them? For example, your relationship to be perfect, can you honestly navigate that on your own? It’s OK to seek self-improvement, and then look for support in the form of a couples therapist to help you on your journey.
Try delegating some minor tasks to colleagues, family members, or hired professionals, and see how it feels. Start small, perhaps hire a window cleaner or ask the intern to proofread your presentation. Treat it as an experiment in learning to accept the way that others do things. It might be helpful to record your thoughts in your journal, and watch as they develop over time, aiming to create space for the difficult emotions that come up as you explore delegating.
Watch the clock
One of the things that contributes to the harmful side of perfectionism is pushing yourself to the limits by working relentlessly without taking breaks. “Try setting yourself specific timeframes for individual tasks,” says counsellor Georgina Sturmer. “When it’s done, it’s done, and see how it feels to live with the consequences.” This might feel hard at first, so try to actively choose to be compassionate to yourself through kind self-talk, either internally, out loud, or in your journal.
Practise acceptance and change
When you put all your self-worth in one area of your life, it means that when things don’t go to plan, your whole sense of self begins to crumble. Instead of striving for perfection in one area, accept that you’re doing your best, and regularly shift your focus to an area of life where you naturally feel at ease. This could be switching from work mode to doing something you enjoy simply for the process, such as swimming, painting, or reading.
Set healthy boundaries
If perfectionism at work is seeping into your home life, it can be hard to relax and get the rest you need to perform at your best. Consider setting a clear cut-off time, and ask friends and family to hold you accountable if they see you working outside of those parameters. A conversation with your employer may help to assert your need for boundaries around emails and phone calls outside of normal working hours.
Explore the root cause
Our craving for perfectionism is driven by core beliefs, often that we are unworthy, broken, or at risk of being abandoned unless we meet our self-imposed standards. These beliefs are so deeply ingrained that you may not even be conscious of them, or how they dictate your thoughts and behaviours.
Georgina says: “Perfectionism is often rooted in the messages that we received in childhood, particularly if perfectionism and achievement were how we elicited the attention and affection of those around us.”
Listen to the thoughts that appear when you are feeling a heightened pressure to be perfect. Follow the thought as deeply as you can, e.g. ‘This report has to be perfect otherwise I am a bad employee, and if I’m not good at my job I am worthless.’
“It’s important to explore the root causes of perfectionism so that we can look in-depth at our core beliefs about ourselves,” Georgina says. “How were these formed, and are they still valid, or can we consider challenging them?” Working with a therapist to explore and challenge these core beliefs will allow you to make lasting changes in your life.
Breaking free from perfectionism isn’t easy, but it will lead you to feel more comfortable in your own skin, confident in your abilities, and more compassion for your human, imperfect self.