What’s wrong with needing to be a 10 out of 10 in every way all the time? For starters, you’re setting yourself up for failure and a lot of heartache because perfection is actually an impossible goal…a quest that can hurt relationships and harm your body and mind. And the quest for perfection is on the rise.
THE PROBLEM WITH PERFECTIONISM
Perfectionists are never satisfied with almost perfect and are self-critical for not being flawless. Their constant pursuit for perfection (instead of excellence) is a source of chronic stress, according to Gordon L. Flett, PhD, a leading researcher on perfectionism.
There are actually three “flavors” of perfectionism, each of which can hurt you in a different way…
Self-oriented perfectionism: Demanding perfection from yourself.
Other-oriented perfectionism: Expecting those around you to be perfect.
Socially-prescribed perfectionism: The belief that others expect perfection from you.
While perfectionists act in ways that create or perpetuate stress by striving excessively or, if they are other-oriented, provoking fights with others, they don’t react well to stress. Their coping style is focused on emotion—for instance, you might get angry at yourself for making a mistake that you cannot stop thinking about—and that avoids seeking support and help from others. At times, this avoidance comes in the form of chronic procrastination in dealing with tasks and problems.
The constant stress of perfectionism is linked to burnout—a combination of emotional and physical exhaustion. Other problems include sleep disturbances, headaches, arthritis and fibromyalgia, the complex disorder that causes widespread (and hard-to-treat) pain.
Psychological issues are common too, such as anxiety, chronic worry and depression. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, self-oriented perfectionism is one of the strongest risk factors for developing an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
Perfectionists are more prone to suicidal thoughts and attempts than nonperfectionists. But even in the absence of suicide, research has also shown that perfectionism is associated with premature death linked to other causes, possibly due to stress and depression.
A GROWING EMOTIONAL EPIDEMIC
A 2017 research review led by Thomas Curran, PhD, at University of Bath in England, was the first to look at perfectionism across generational lines by analyzing data from numerous studies of college students conducted at different periods of time, from the late 1980s to 2016. Collectively, the studies reflected more than 40,000 American, Canadian and British students in all. Each of the studies analyzed had participants complete the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, a test for generational changes in perfectionism that “scores” according to a percentile.
The findings: The most recent generation of college students scored higher in each type of perfectionism than earlier generations of students. Taken from a baseline average score of the 50th percentile, between 1989 to 2016, self-oriented perfectionism rose 10%, socially-prescribed jumped 32% and other-oriented grew by 16%. Note: Many people hold high levels of one, two or even all three types, but for most, one form will dominate.
Why the increase? Young college-educated adults now believe that people are more harshly judged than they used to be and that being perfect will result in getting the desired approval from others.
According to a separate report done by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University, students on college campuses are also reporting more symptoms of anxiety, depression and social anxiety than previous generations.
Today’s society values excessively high standards of performance and approval from others. This promotes a desire to be flawless or at least appear to be, according to Dr. Curran. The look of perfection depicted in old media, such as the pages of magazines and in advertising, has now expanded to new media platforms that people are exposed to nearly every waking minute. Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat fuelperfectionism by emphasizing unrealistic ideals and creating an inescapable visual culture where flaws and deficiencies are scrubbed out, reinforcing the message that imperfection is to be frowned upon and avoided.
There is no “cure” for perfectionism. It sits on a spectrum and all people have higher or lower levels of certain tendencies. But there are ways to break free…
- Give yourself a break: Fight your natural tendency to be self-critical and show yourself some compassion instead.
- Stop focusing on outcomes: If you take a class or take up a new skill, enjoy the process of learning instead of stressing over how you’re doing compared with others in the class or wondering how fast you can master the new skill.
- Set realistic and manageable goals: You don’t have to be a tennis aceto be successful on your club’s team, for instance.
Important: If you think that your perfectionism is out of control, it’s time to seek mental health care. Dr. Flett says that interpersonal-based therapy can be effective. An interpersonal approach is appropriate when people try to be perfect to compensate for unmet interpersonal needs, such as the need to be loved and to matter to others. But be prepared to make a long-term commitment to treatment, especially if you’ve been a perfectionist for years. Old thoughts and habits are hard to break.
If you can’t or won’t reduce your level of perfectionism, the focus of therapy may shift to helping you cope with it and finding more adaptive ways to respond when life is inevitably not perfect.
For more, read about how perfectionism is stealing your happiness and how to get it back.