Perfectionism was once a trait you reeled off in a job interview. You know, when a potential new employer asked about your worst habits, you’d smile and say, “Oh, I’m a bit of a perfectionist”, implying you were diligent and dedicated.
Sadly perfectionism has taken on a darker meaning in recent years. A study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows a marked increase in “multidimensional perfectionism” in college students in the US, UK and Canada over the past 27 years. Authors Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill say this is down to an increase in “competitive individualism” or the idea that our achievements and success are now solely down to our merits and hard work rather than simply our socio-economic status. That feeling that we can, and should, constantly strive to achieve more.
“The findings indicate that recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves,” the study concludes. And this is having a huge impact on millennial mental health, with the APA citing perfectionism – which isn’t classified as a mental health condition – as a leading cause of depression, anxiety and even suicide in young people. Performance, status and image is now the currency of success – and being constantly pitted against each other (and our own expectations) in classrooms, workplaces and online can take a dangerous toll.
Twenty-eight-year-old Lisa* knows just how debilitating perfectionism can be. She believes a fear of failure is a major cause of her anxiety. It’s been present for as long as she can remember. “Often it’s subtle,” she says. “An obsessive and insatiable thirst for self-improvement, but there’s also a lot of worry, comparison and negative self-talk. I think it can be triggered by situations that leave me feeling inferior – break-ups, issues at work, falling out with friends. Rather than just accept the situation for what it is, it can often spiral into not feeling good, or ‘perfect’, enough.”
“I always tell my own team to consider perfection not from their own view, but from the needs of what they are trying to achieve.”
Regular therapy sessions for the past 18 months have helped her understand more about these patterns of thinking so, she says, she can “stand back and get less swept up by it”. Where Lisa’s perfectionism often manifests itself in comparing herself to others and questioning situations, Rachel*, 25, finds she sets herself unachievable goals because she has unrealistic standards. “My perfectionism goes into overdrive when I have documents or presentations to prepare for my uni course or work,” she says. “Any situation with high pressure. It relates to always wanting to present the best possible version of something.”
Rachel can pinpoint the exact moment she realised she was suffering from perfectionism – her first semester studying for a degree online whilst working in marketing full-time. “I would spend weeks researching for an assignment and when it came to writing it, I couldn’t write a thing,” she says. “I’d have a total meltdown, becoming completely distressed and unable to calm myself down. I couldn’t get any words on paper because it had to start ‘just right’, otherwise I couldn’t move on to the next section.” Now she’s found a “work around” through collaboration. Sharing the process by chatting to other students on her course or her work colleagues helps, she says, as does having a friend look over her work. “An external eye helps you realise when it’s time to stop and say, ‘This is great, I’m done’.”
Careers coach and spokesperson for the Careers Development Association Australia (CDAA), Rebecca Fraser believes being open in the workplace about a tendency for perfectionism is a must because it can undermine our potential. “Being a perfectionist can hold us back because we are always second guessing if we can share an idea or an opportunity if it isn’t perfect,” she says. “I always tell my own team to consider perfection not from their own view, but from the needs of what they are trying to achieve. If [the trait] means we are not sharing ideas or completing activities in a way that allows us to demonstrate our own capabilities, this can hinder our progression. And it does.”
That’s not to say perfectionism is always a negative. Studies appear to show two distinct types: adaptive (characterised by a motivation to succeed, discipline and high standards) and maladaptive or toxic (self-critical and frustrated by perceived failures). Adaptive perfectionists have been found to suffer less depressive symptoms than maladaptive, and often feel protected from failure by their drive and ambition. Something both Lisa and Rachel can attest to, but with clear caveats.
“It’s what helps me to excel in my career and deliver work that I’m really proud of. However, it is important to recognise when it goes too far; when it causes you distress or wastes too much time.”
“I like that I’ve refused to settle in my life – whether that’s relationships, health or work,” Lisa says. “So for this reason, I think while ultimately I’d like to overcome it, part of me is scared that would mean letting my standards slip. My therapist once said it’s a bit like being in an abusive relationship in that way. Even though it makes you miserable, you keep on coming back.”
Rachel agrees, saying she’s proud of her perfectionism to a degree. “It’s what helps me to excel in my career and deliver work that I’m really proud of,” she adds. “However, it is important to recognise when it goes too far; when it causes you distress or wastes too much time.”
Seeking help from a psychologist is essential. Rebecca also recommends finding a mentor at work, outside of your team, to provide a different perspective on that critical inner narrative. And perhaps another good starting point is to address a fear of failure by celebrating and accepting the beauty in imperfection, rather than hiding from it, as Lisa is slowly learning to do.
“It’s liberating,” she says. “Now when I find myself feeling this way I’ll try to let it go over my head a bit more. I also limit my social media usage because those curated ‘perfect’ worlds simply don’t help. Sometimes I just need to remind myself that I’m human.”
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