Research shows that New Year’s resolutions and striving for perfection can be damaging to mental health
A week into the New Year and a lot of us are already re-evaluating the promises we’ve made to ourselves for the year ahead. The start of a new calendar can signal thoughts and feelings about wanting to be a better person, to achieve more, be happier - more perfect, even.
And, despite the best intentions, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by those January resolutions only a few days in. But, if you find yourself in this boat, you’re not alone.
An international study led by York St John University has uncovered worrying trends about perfectionism. Results suggest that people are feeling more pressure to be perfect, as well as more uncertain about their actions, than ever before. It also highlighted that if we don’t learn to accept our imperfections, we could risk our future mental health.
In defining perfectionism, co-author of the study Dr Simon B. Sherry, clinical psychologist and professor at Dalhousie University, noted: “Perfectionism is a destructive personality trait. Perfectionists strive relentlessly to perfect themselves or others. They also push for flawlessness and find any mistake extremely unacceptable.”
However, Dr Sherry notes that perfectionism is a treatable problem. “We have more and more evidence that perfectionism can be reduced, and this is important as perfectionism is linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and many other serious problems.”
The paper, which analysed a quarter of a century of research, was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review (PSPR) earlier this month. The meta-analysis used data across 75 papers from 25,000 subjects. It compared genders and ages for the first time, ranging from young teenagers to the over 50s.
Lead author Dr Martin M. Smith, psychologist and lecturer in research methods at York St John University, said: “This study represents the most rigorous and comprehensive test of perfectionism and key personality traits, to date. We synthesised findings from over 25 years of research on perfectionism and the five-factor model of personality.”
One of the key findings of the study is that life does not get easier for perfectionists over time. In fact, it gets harder.
The typical person experiences less self-generated pressure to be perfect and appears to set more realistic goals as they age. However, as perfectionists age, they appear to be more prone to experience negative emotions and are less diligent regarding their work and obligations.
And, contrary to perceived stereotype, it’s not just women who are increasingly feeling like they don’t measure up - perfectionism appears equally prevalent across males and females.
“It’s important to note that high standards are not the same as perfectionistic standards, and that striving for excellence and striving for perfection are not the same thing," added Dr Smith.
So, this January, we encourage you to be kind to yourself. Put your own wellbeing first and let go of the need for perfection. You’re brilliant, just as you are.
If you are worried about your mental health, you may benefit from speaking to a professional. Enter your location in the box below to find a counsellor near you.