The rise of perfectionism is easy to see. We live in a meritocracy where you gain validation and acceptance for your achievements. Behaviours associated with competition and the attainment of social standing have risen. In recent years, data suggests that individuals across the industrialized world have become preoccupied with upward social comparison, experience considerable status anxiety, and adopt materialism as a means of perfecting their lives in relation to others. (Those who prefer a slower life tend to be judged as lazy or lacking in ambition. The irony is that these individuals who reject the rat race may the the wise ones.)
Perfectionists spend their lives striving and achieving and these behaviours are strong linked to their sense of self worth. They never feel good enough and rarely bask in their success. As soon as they have achieved a goal, they are on to the next one. I have rarely met a perfectionist who was happy with themselves or their lives. They never feel good enough.
I once met a client who was about to go on a holiday to Ibiza. She was incredibly anxious about the trip and when I enquired further she explained that she had been dieitng for weeks and going to the gym so that she could take the perfect selfie. She planned to put this instagram and felt that if she was unable to take the perfect selfie for instagram, it would prove that she wasn’t good enough. Her entire focus was around this perfect photo to display on social media. This is an example of perfectionism. Mild perfectionism isn’t a bad thing but when it affects your general enjoyment of life and is so strongly linked to your sense of value and confidence, it becomes dysfunctional.
Research suggests 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.
There are three types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism.
Self oriented perfectionism
When directed toward the self, individuals attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluations (self-oriented perfectionism). This is the most complex type of perfectionism.
Socially prescribed perfectionism
When perceived to come from others, individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval.
Other oriented perfectionism
When perfectionistic expectations are directed toward others, individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate others critically. Other oriented perfectionism is strongly related to a desire for others’ admiration.
To measure self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented perfectionism, Hewitt and Flett (1991) developed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. The validity and reliability of this instrument have been established across several decades.
Perfectionism tends to be linked to anxiety and depression. Perfectionism can also have a negative impact on relationships due to the perfectionists high standards that make it impossible for a partner to live up to. Sexual satisfaction can be lower and general relationship satisfaction is lower too, due to their unrealistic standards.
Eighty-one percent of Americans born in the 1980's report that getting materially rich is among their most important life goals, a figure that is almost 20% higher than those born in the 1960's and 1970's.
Not only more dissatisfied with what they have, young people are also seemingly more dissatisfied with who they are (Eckersley, 2006). Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are everywhere, occupying 2 out of every 5 min spent online. Being exposed to seemingly perfect images increases general anxiety and body dissatisfaction. Increasing numbers of people are turning to plastic surgery to improve their image. As a mental health professional, it is obvious to see that we are on a dangerous path. Most images that we see are photoshopped and many photos are taken in order to find the best one. Many buy into these ‘perfect’ images though and compare themselves unfavourably. More than 80% of individuals I interviewed confirmed that they were not happy with some part of their appearance.
Due to the comparisons we all make, this encourages further perfectionism. Sadly, many try to live up to impossible ideals and spend a large part of their lives unsattisfied and unhappy. What a waste.
Perfectionism is a misguided attempt to gain validation from others. The problem though, is that individuals internalise the sense that they aren’t good enough and if this is their belief, no amount of validation will ever ‘fill that gap’.
Parents tend to be placing more pressure on their children too. So, not only do young people have to deal with their own failure but the problem is compounded by the fact that they feel they are letting their parents down too. Unfortunately, many parents live vicariously through their children and expect their children to attain levels they were never able to, or at least match their own level of success. Parents unwittingly pass their own achievement anxieties onto their children by way of excessive involvement in their child’s routines, activities, or emotions.
According to the most recent global health estimates from the World Health Organization (2017), serious mental illness afflicts a record number of young people. In the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, young people are experiencing higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation than they did a decade ago. They also report more loneliness and present to clinicians with eating disorders and body dysmorphia at a higher rate than previous generations.
Although perfectionists have an excessive need for others approval, they feel socially disconnected and such alienation renders them susceptible to profound psychological turmoil (Hewitt et al., 2017).
How to reduce perfectionism
Slow down and be mindful. Take time out from your busy schedule and take in your surroundings. Be more present in your life. These are effective ways to start counteracting perfectionism.
Learn to make mistakes. Send a letter with a spelling error, don’t iron your linen or don’t make your bed. Get back in control of your perfectionistic urges.
Reject “musts” and “shoulds” Why must you? Why should you? Challenge these rigid beliefs.
Live with less rigid rules. We all tend to live according to rules. Therapists call these “rules for living” and they usually take the format of, “if this…then that”….
For example: “If I don’t get it right every time, it means I am a failure.” Perfectionists tend to have black-and-white thinking (also called all-or-nothing thinking). They see things as good or bad, a success or a failure. This isn’t realistic at all — the world is full of grey areas. Learn to see the world in less rigid terms. The more rules you have, the more likely they will be broken and lead to stress.
Learn to be psychologically flexible — this involves finding alternative ways to look at the world around you. That person who didn’t call you back — it may have nothing to do with you. A perfectionist is likely to believe they have done something to cause this. If you focus on other possibilities such as — they are busy, they are taking a nap etc, you are more likely to feel less stressed. Thoughts lead to emotions and emotions guide behaviour. Be more aware of your thoughts and you control your world more than before.
Perfectionists are slaves to validation — it’s no way to live. Like yourself irrespective of what others think of you. Stay away from social media if you need a break. Do whatever it takes to nurture your self belief.
Self compassion is key too — being self critical is unhelpful. Treat youself as you would someone you cared for. Be supportive and kind to yourself. Self compassion and mindfulness (breaking the ‘busy cycle’) are two very effective ways to reduce perfectionism.. Learn to let go a little…
Originally published at http://www.thoughtsonlifeandlove.com on April 14, 2020.