Why Perfectionism May Be Damaging for our Mental Health
Before we start to really dive in, I have a bit of a confession to make: I think I’m a perfectionist. Ok, well maybe it wasn’t the ground-breaking-jaw-dropping confession you were hoping for, but there is something about it that I consider ironic… I am also the type of person to say ‘there’s no such thing as perfect.’
But what I wonder is, is it possible to be a perfectionist whilst also understanding that the concept is, for the most part, unattainable? Well, it seems so, and it may be this very reason that perfectionism isn’t quite what it seems.
Perfectionism may be damaging for mental health.
Now, I probably would have written this blog at some point anyway as it is something that genuinely sparks my interest as a mental health researcher with a background in psychology, but I think the COVID-19 pandemic has given me a bit of a shove towards it. For some reason, during this year particularly, I have become more aware of my perfectionist tendencies.
I read a column from clinical psychologist Desiree Dickerson which hit the nail on the head for me — I think it is because this year has provided us with so many more reasons to worry about things that I realised my perfectionism shouldn't be one of them (that being, said she was working from home whilst looking after two young children so things sounded a bit more full-on for her than me!).
For the most part, I think perfectionism has helped me with my education and career — I was motivated to work extremely hard because anything less wasn’t acceptable to me personally and was very critical of my work to always polish things and make it better.
It also means I have good attention for detail (something that must help me writing these blogs and in my role as Co-Editor for InSPIre the Mind if nothing else, right?).
But, that being said, I have recognised that it can provide me additional, and probably unnecessary, stress surrounding my work from time to time and this is what I have noticed particularly happening this year.
Perfectionism is a personality trait; one where you tend to set extremely high, or ‘perfect,’ standards for yourself or others, and often struggle to accept anything less. Some people will experience perfectionism across their everyday lives while others may experience the tendencies relating to a specific aspect such as their appearance, school or work for example.
Our culture has evolved and sculpted perfectionism to be seen in a positive light. Think of the go-to response in a job interview when asked about your biggest weaknesses, “I’m a bit of a perfectionist” — the reason being is it ticks the box as a weakness, but at a surface level it does have quite positive connotations: that you work hard and do things to the best of your ability.
While the phenomenon is nothing short of new, it seems that it may be starting younger and younger and perfectionism is on the rise, particularly in Westernised civilisations.
But the overall idea of perfectionism being something good is actually quite dangerous. According to Psychology Today, perfectionism appears to be on a scale, ranging from adaptive, a striving to achieve the best whilst not beating yourself up when you come up short of that, to maladaptive, a kind of perfectionism fuelled by excessive pressure and that tends to result in internal torment. The reality is, the existence of the latter half of the scale shows that it can actually be very dysfunctional, and we need to be aware of this with growing rates of us possessing the trait.
The concept of ‘perfect’ is, at its core, largely unattainable and this is likely because it is a self-derived concept set by our own standards. In this sense, it’s almost like trying to mix oil and water — it’s fundamentally unmixable, due to molecular make-up, rather than any attempt you make.
But knowing that perfect isn’t achievable doesn’t mean that you won’t push yourself to always do better.
I wonder if this is why it can be maladaptive for some, but motivational to others? If you put too much pressure on yourself to try and achieve it, it is understandable that it can add additional stress to daily life and maybe it’s the response when falling short that comes into play too. One possibility is that maybe some perfectionists actually avoid (or fear in more extreme cases) failure more than they try to achieve perfection.
For those who experience a more maladaptive type of perfectionism, the trait can often cause turmoil, anxiety and constant worry. And so, contrary to what is commonly perceived, it is not always the same as being competitive or a hard worker, there is a point where it becomes toxic — perfectionism can actually put people at higher risk of mental health difficulties.
No matter where you look for information on the relationship between perfectionism and mental health, two names will flood your google search — Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt.
Flett and Hewitt have dubbed perfectionism as a ‘hypercritical relationship with oneself.’ The psychologists acknowledge that there are of course positive attributes which can be associated with the trait, but it is also the individual having a negative relationship with themselves, pre-occupation to achieve the best can trigger turmoil and a cycle of self-doubt.
The pair, who are strong leaders in the field, performed a landmark study which demonstrated exactly why perfectionism can be simultaneously good and bad — it is actually a multidimensional concept, meaning that there are different variances of the trait. We most often know of perfectionism being about the self and having high standards for our own achievements (self-oriented) but perfectionism comes in other forms too, including other-oriented (expectations for the people around you), or socially prescribed (belief that others have standards for yourself and needing to meet this perception) — I didn’t realise until now, but this last one is definitely me.
The study found that self-oriented perfectionism is highly associated with more common feelings of self-blame and criticism, along with experiencing extreme feelings of guilt, disappointment and anger. Socially-prescribed perfectionism on the other hand is highly associated with people fearing negative-evaluations from others and feeling anger. It is clear that perfectionism can have profound impact on our feelings, and Flett himself said:
“A link between perfectionism and serious illness is not surprising given that unrelenting perfectionism can be a recipe for chronic stress.”
The Motivation, Performance, and Wellbeing Research Group present the Perils of Perfectionism.
It isn’t recognised as a mental illness in itself, but perfectionism and mental health seem to collide. Both adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism have been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders and eating disorders.
Links with depression and anxiety are some of the most reported, although there is still a need for better understanding in research as to exactly how the relationship works. It has been suggested that when it comes to depression specifically, living in constant fear of making mistakes and having a cycle of self-criticism can lead to clinical depression and even suicidal thoughts — from Gordon and Flett’s model, those who are self-oriented perfectionists are at the highest risk of this. In a similar way, perfectionism driven by a fear of not achieving, or disappointing others, can cause a lot of distress and can understandably lead to the experience of anxiety.
Something possibly more surprising is the established link with eating disorders, but perfectionism is actually very common in people who experience anorexia and bulimia. It appears to have a role in the whole life cycle of the disorders, including impacting onset and recovery.
Perfectionism grounded in appearance or weight can lead to obsessional thinking when it comes to diet, for example, constant striving for perfection may then act as fuel to the fire when it comes to controlling food intake as breaks in strict restrictions may be perceived as a failure. With perfectionism playing such an integral role, it is clear why reducing perfectionist tendencies can be a critical part of the treatment for eating disorders.
Even in conditions beyond eating disorders, researchers have found that perfectionist tendencies may not just be a factor that puts you at risk, but it may be a maintaining factor too - something which essentially drives its continuation.
A number of studies have also suggested that perfectionism can interfere in improvement, with possession of the trait tending to lower the effectiveness of psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy, a commonly used talking therapy for mental health.
And if the links between perfectionistic tendencies and mental health were not enough, physical health can also be implicated by its perils. Studies have found that the stress triggered by toxic perfectionism can lead to experiences of fatigue, tension, headaches and insomnia.
Flett described how the link between perfectionism and serious illness (mental and physical) is unsurprising considering “unrelenting perfectionism can be a recipe for chronic stress.” There have been many previous Inspire the Mind blogs on the impact of stress on our mental and physical health which you can read here.
Personally, after doing this research I now consider myself to be very lucky. Yes, I do often stress more than I should thanks to my perfectionist tendencies, but there are so many people really suffering at the hands of perfectionism, both mentally and physically, and this is so much more than a bit of added stress.
There is plenty of research out there on how we can break down the bridge between perfectionism and mental illness and this is what we should really focus on. Recent studies have suggested that self-compassion can moderate the link between perfectionism and depression for example, and that interventions based on self-compassion could be a useful way of reducing the toxic effects of the personality trait.
So, to my fellow perfectionists — adaptive, maladaptive, socially-prescribed, socially-oriented: let’s try and be a little kinder to ourselves.
I suppose next steps would be to identify factors responsible for the increase in perfectionism in Western civilisations. Research has shown that it affects younger generations especially hard with one study finding the percentage of college students with perfectionism tendencies rising by 33% between 1989 to 2016, and socially-prescribed grew the most.
Perhaps the rise and growing popularity of social media may be one of the reasons at play. Users are faced with perfectly (filtered) presented versions of people’s lives. Comparisons can leave users feeling inadequate of these standards, yet few are showing the real version of their lives.
But, social media isn’t the only responsible party, there also seems to be at least some genetic component meaning that aspects of the trait may be inherited through family, however, it appears to be a complicated relationship with between 20–40% of perfectionism being inherited but varying considerably depending on both the dimension of perfectionism and on our gender. So there is also plenty of room for environmental influences to come into the scene.
What we do know is that perfectionism isn’t as good as it is always perceived.
While positive for some, in reality perfectionism can be very damaging for others and can result in a lot of stress. We need to be understanding of this and be aware of knocking down these perceptions, especially with rates on the rise. Let’s practice self-compassion and acknowledge that perfect isn’t real, it is normal to make mistakes, they won’t define you.
Over the last couple of weeks, my perfectionism is something I have been more focussed on.
Personally (and I can’t emphasise that enough — my perfectionism is minimal to the experience of others and I don’t want to undermine that), as someone who appears to be more concerned about failure and mistakes than about being ‘perfect,’ reminding myself of the reality of these situations has helped me to worry less: 9 times out of 10 a mistake I make means nothing in the grand scheme of things, and especially with everything going on in the world right now, so why should I worry so much. Self-compassion is something I will be working on a lot more from now on — as we all should.
And so if you notice any mistakes in this blog, ignore them — I’m giving less energy to being a perfectionist!