Understanding the perfectionism phenomenon.
Posted July 25, 2018 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
It’s not easy feeling like you’re always under the spotlight being judged for each little mistake you make, or at least that’s what you tell yourself. Your mind is in an endless loop playing what you said and did over and over again. And if you find one little mistake, then the torment of self-bashing begins. You wish you had a time capsule to go back and make things right. You fear what others will think about you and that they will reject and dislike you. You seek to be socially perfect. When in reality, odds are no one even thought twice about your goof-up but your anxious mind won’t let you see the truth.
Academically, you work long endless hours just to make those stellar marks. Although most would say “it’s good to have high standards," they have no idea about the internal hell you put yourself through to achieve perfection. And heaven forbid if you get anything below your set standard. If you come up less than your desired goal you feel as though you have failed, but you’re far from failing, you just don’t see it that way. So instead you resort to telling yourself that you’re stupid, and not smart. Sometimes you call yourself lazy because you procrastinate on tough tasks if only you knew that delay comes from your fear of failing not because you’re lazy. The pressure you place on yourself weighs you down and you wear the “not good enough” label each and every day.
You not only have high standards for yourself but you also have them for others. If people don’t perform up to your expectations then you deem them incompetent. This causes a lot of frustration because you can’t trust anyone to get things right. And you don’t want someone to ruin the good reputation that you’ve built for yourself. So instead of being a team player, you fly solo and try to do two or three jobs at once. Your unrealistic expectations cause you to criticize and judge others and that leads to problems in other areas of your life.
The attempt to be perfect is the epitome of insanity. It’s called perfectionism and it’s the unachievable American dream that’s damaging our emotional and mental health. We strive for perfection with our body, in our performance, and in our relationships. In a society that magnifies mistakes, is it any wonder that so many young people attempt the impossible task of being perfect?
You know you’re a perfectionist if you’re:
1. Finding fault in what you or others do.
2. Setting unrealistically high-performance standards.
3. Being overly critical of mistakes.
4. Seeking approval for doing something well.
5. Procrastinating and avoiding situations that could result in perceived failure.
6. Self-bashing and endless questioning (e.g., do I look good, am I smart enough, will they hate me?).
7. Shrugging off compliments.
8. Failing to acknowledge success and victory.
9. Spending a lot of time on tasks, making them more cumbersome and burdensome than they should be.
10. Ruminating on what you shoulda, coulda, woulda said or how you shoulda, coulda, woulda done something differently.
If you’re a perfectionist, there’s nothing new to you on that list and you know exactly what the desire to be perfect feels like. It’s the self-defeating behaviors that occur when you don’t believe that you did something right. It’s the internal name-calling and taunting that occurs when you can’t get your mind to slow down. It’s the feeling that all eyes are on you when you make a mistake. It’s the fear that seizes you and keeps you from trying something new. Perfectionism results in failure because in your eyes, things can always be better and that pressure can lead to a breakdown. A breakdown that can come at a high cost—your psychological health.
According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism among young people has significantly increased since the 1980s. The rise in perfectionism could be associated with the nation's increase in stress, depression, and anxiety. The desire to be perfect has even been tied to suicidal thoughts. In a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Personality, researchers found 45 studies involving 54 samples, with 11,747 participants linking perfectionism to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Researchers reviewed studies with themes of perfectionism centering around excessive expectations on oneself, feeling pressure from others (including parents or society), or holding other people to unrealistically high standards. And the findings indicated that those who scored high on perfectionism also reported having more suicidal thoughts. And those who were reported being self-conscious and overly concerned with meeting their perceived expectation of others’ reported more suicide attempts. The only type of perfectionist that wasn’t linked to suicidal thoughts or attempts was those who hold themselves to high standards, but even this type of perfectionism has been linked to stress and anxiety.
5 Steps to Soothe Your Desire to be Perfect
- Tackle your fear of failure. Success lies beyond failure. Fear of failing creates undue stress and anxiety. It can immobilize you from moving forward and achieving your goals. If you don’t take a chance and try something, you’ll never know what true success feels like. And even if you do fail that’s OK too. Success is born from mistakes. As the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
- Grow from mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Look at them as learning opportunities rather than failures. Ask yourself “What can I learn from this learning opportunity and how can I use it to make my life better?”
- Appreciate compliments and celebrate your accomplishments. Take time to celebrate your accomplishments before brushing them off and hastily moving to the next task. Also, pay attention to the compliments others give you. Those spoken truths often go unheard but they hold the key to what others see in you.
- Accept who you are. What a boring place this world would be if we all were perfect. If that were the case, there’d be no airplanes, electricity, technology or hilarious YouTube videos. With every mistake we learn, we grow and we understand a little more about life. Don’t let the embarrassment of screwing up rob you from finding inner peace and accepting who you are—mess-ups and all.
- Don’t Surrender to Perfectionism. Your beauty lies in your imperfection. You are a work of art, a true magnum opus. Don’t surrender to the erroneous internal messages that tell you that you’re not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, worthy enough. Those lies will steal away your joy of living.
We all have flaws, fears, and make mistakes, and that’s perfectly OK. It’s our imperfections that make life interesting and they help us grow into a stronger more resilient person. We don’t have to strive to achieve the impossible. We are designed to be perfectly imperfect.
Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2017). Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin.
Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Chen, S., Saklofske, D. H., Mushquash, C., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2018). The perniciousness of perfectionism: A meta‐analytic review of the perfectionism–suicide relationship. Journal of Personality, 86(3), 522-542. doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12333