The Dangers of Perfectionism
6 rebuttals to quiet that nagging inner voice
Posted July 9, 2018
Has perfectionism become the modern ailment? Research is suggesting so. In this “Age of Anxiety”, there’s increasing evidence that we’re taking the bait of today’s culture, one that makes us feel under accomplished if we aren’t some kind of glammed-up success-bot.
We’re expected to look like the Kardashians, be goal-setting machines, answer every ding within milliseconds and not let anyone see us sweat—unless it’s to show off the insanely hard hot yoga class you managed to sneak in between all the deadlines, meetings and time spent triaging the latest disaster.
Kids are expected to iron out their college choices by second grade. Their parents are pressured to find the perfect parenting style. We’re told cut the cord, go free-range—but not to the point your kid gets picked off by a gorilla. Douse yourself in hand sanitizer, but don’t kill the good bacteria. Don’t dare smear that toxic sun lotion all over your child—you’ll give them a different kind of cancer. Let them go down the slide alone, but if they get concussed, you’re an idiot. Don’t be a helicopter, be a submarine. And even with all this effort, you still feel guilty even though this generation spends more intentional time with their children than any generation past.
Thomas Curran, PhD and Andrew Hill, PhD define perfectionism as "an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others." Their 2017 study reveals a 33 percent increase in socially prescribed perfectionism since 1989. They explain that “the strong need” for today’s generation to achieve relates to the “increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations” writ large.
The relentless messaging tricks us into thinking what we do defines who we are. It leads us to constant self-criticism and incessant worry we’re not measuring up. Our inner voice takes on the tone of the culture, and if we redirect ourselves, we might be at risk for mental health problems and chronic discontent.
Here are some mantras to help you talk back to your perfectionism and keep your quest for excellence from spiraling into irrational thoughts and behaviors:
1. Being perfect isn’t my key to social acceptance. It’s not what makes us worthy, lovable or connected. Perfectionism disrupts authentic connections.
2. When things go “wrong”, there are lessons to be found. When we’re setting out to do hard things, things won’t always go as planned. This provides plenty of material to help us learn and grow. If we’re hyper focused on things going perfect, we miss the lessons within the messes.
3. There’s no such thing as perfect. Perfection is a myth. Don’t fall for the illusions created by your social media feeds or someone else’s presentation of their carefully curated self. They probably took about 35 shots to get that “perfect selfie”, complete with filter. Celebs hire publicists and can afford all kinds of image building boosts. Those inseparable friend groups and Camelot families you see flashing across your feed might be miserable behind the scenes. Life isn’t perfect for anyone. We all have dynamics.
4. “Perfect” isn’t sustainable. It’s a treadmill that’s hard to dismount. The obsession with being perfect can lead to exhaustion and burnout. Expecting yourself to perform 24-7 without pause can send your brain, body and soul into cycles of depletion and overstimulation which can be damaging in the long haul.
5. I need to practice mindfulness not mindlessness. Perfectionism causes us to engage in mindless behavior. We set inhumane goals, reach them, barely take time to appreciate or celebrate, then hit repeat. We lose perspective and forget to practice gratitude for what we have, and instead ruminate over the parts we think we’re falling short on. Perfectionism keeps us from staying in the now and relishing in what is, it keeps us obsessing over what isn’t.
6. I can’t let perfectionism consume me. Perfectionism ramps up our tendency to impulsively consume. It tricks us into thinking we will find satisfaction through status, money, letters after our names and stuff that we can afford when we become “successful”. We are what Buddhists call “Hungry Ghosts”--no matter how hard we work to find comfort, we find ourselves perpetually empty because we’ve spent time building an identity on things that science proves does not leave us feeling whole and healthy.
Perfectionism Essential Reads
Resisting perfectionism doesn’t mean giving up your quest to do well, or that you have to give up ambition, but overdoing can cause you to become unwell. Instead of letting social expectations dominate your inner voice, see how you can rethink perfectionism and instead strive for what positive psychologists call “The Good Life”-one characterized by connections, value alignment and greater presence with ourselves and one another.
Schulte, B. (2014). Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. New York: Sarah Crichton Books.
Thomas Curran, Andrew P. Hill (2017). Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin.