In the lead-up to a dinner party, the location of which happens to be my house, I buy flowers and over-priced items from the nice homewares store, which I am careful not to visit too often. I get up earlier than usual to squeeze in some exercise and an hour of cleaning before I am due at my desk. I spend my entire lunch break dusting, wiping, and polishing the various surfaces my guests will interact with or gaze at from afar, as if these surfaces are an extension of my own body. At one point, 20 minutes before my guests were due to arrive, my boyfriend asked if I was ok. I am so preoccupied with how the prosciutto drapes and folds on the chopping board that I almost miss this question. I nod indefinitely, the top of my head pointing at him, as I move the slice of comté cheese to different areas of the cheeseboard. Looking back on the dinner party now, I suppose I was not ‘ok’; in fact, I was barely there throughout the evening. Like many perfectionists, I was convinced my self-worth was conditional on the dinner party’s outcome, which I attempted to control via the position of the charcuterie board and the place settings.
We are inclined to conflate perfectionism with conscientiousness and ambition
Perfectionism is a personality trait that gets a relatively good rap. In fact, it might just be the most highly regarded maladaptive trait to the extent that many consider it a strength. Consider that ancient idiom of the job interview whereby the interviewer asks, ‘what’s your biggest flaw’ and the interviewee replies, ‘I’m a perfectionist!’ This attitude reflects the conflation of perfectionism with conscientiousness, discipline, and ambition. While conscientiousness and perfectionism have some overlapping features, perfectionism stems from a feeling of not being good enough. Therefore, the way of thinking about oneself characterises this trait rather than a series of behaviours. The feeling of being not enough means the perfectionist mistakes their identity for their achievements, and their sense of self becomes conditional on their performance. Maladaptive perfectionism is a relentless, self-perpetuating cycle that is, by and large, a person regulating their experience of shame. At baseline, the perfectionist lives in a state of deep-rooted shame (often, they are indifferent to this in the way one is indifferent to the feeling of blood moving around the veins). The perfectionist’s behaviours are developed to keep this shame hidden in the corner. The pattern of thinking often goes something like this: ‘if I never fail, then I am perfect, and if I am perfect, then I do not feel not good enough, and I do not feel shame’. However, we all know perfect does not exist, and that flaws and failures are inevitable. This means that perfectionists often experience significant degrees of psychological discomfort when they fall short of their (unreachable) goals.
We exist in a culture that rewards and breeds maladaptive perfectionism
Perfectionism can be inherited in many ways. It could be that our earlier role models were perfectionists or that our caregiver bonds failed to nourish us and make us feel like we were enough. It could be a behavioural offshoot from an existing anxiety disorder, where the anxiety is managed by spending excess time controlling or perfecting the outcomes. Lowered self-esteem and shame around one’s internal or external worth is another common one. These individuals are prone to developing perfectionist tendencies as they become addicted to the praise associated with achievement. These are prevalent causal factors, but I find the social and cultural environment that breeds perfectionism to be most interesting.
Recently, I found myself at a large wedding in which almost all the guests attended Melbourne’s most private of schools. The only person I knew was my boyfriend, who happened to be the best man, and so there were many introductions that all began with ‘what do you do for a living?’ Throughout the day and into the evening, I found myself becoming exhausted as I spoke to technology giants, software engineers, doctors, successful entrepreneurs, architects, and barristers. I was amused by the first Olympian and perturbed by the third. Over the dinner course, I relaxed back into my chair and observed the conversation move competitively from holiday plans to new homes to promotions. I have felt this way before, though that night, it became uncomfortably clear just how much we live in a society that values the scope and quality of individual accomplishments, and in particular, work achievements.
Researchers of psychology and sociology, Curran and Hill, make a strong case for the rise in perfectionism. They point out how we have been raised in a market-based society to treat failure as detrimental. This focus on achievement, they argue, is dominant early on as kids are exposed to standardised testing and high-pressure entrance standards. This level of competition might seem harmless, perhaps like a good lesson, but children internalise this and become hostile to mistakes. Cue perfectionist tendencies, as Curran and Hill point out, the gross rise from 1989 to 2016.
Professionals warn the rise in perfectionism is a serious public health concern
Researchers and clinicians are raising alarm bells over perfectionism, warning that it is reckless to undermine the rigid perfectionist mindset. Take Katie Rasmussen, child development and perfectionism researcher at the University of West Virginia, who says its rise is so profound that she and her contemporaries discuss it in the context of an epidemic sliding toward a severe public health issue. Perfectionism is often regarded as the most sinister trait of them all, as it is quiet, deeply ingrained and a major risk factor for some of the most prevalent and severe disorders in our society. One of the most widely accepted and prescribed treatment plans for anxiety and depression is the practice of self-compassion, which is the exact skill perfectionists lack.
Among other prevalent mental illnesses, perfectionism happens to be the most predictive trait of eating disorders. Over the past two years, I have observed the eating disorder inquiries become more regular and more severe while, at the same time, the wait times grow longer as the industry scrambles to keep up with the demand. Disappointed clients and desperate parents ask why this is. Why so many? But she’s so young? Well, when the perfectionist learns that perfection is an unachievable feat in all aspects of their life, they turn to one thing they can control completely, their body and diet, and so we see the perfectionist turn to monitor the consumption and release of energy; a new way to abate the shame. Often there is a catalyst, perhaps a major life change or challenging environment, that challenges their usual attainment of their goal. COVID-19, year 12 examinations, starting over in another city, and parental divorce are all examples of potential catalysts that see perfectionists turn their attention inward and to the body.
Perfectionistic thinking holds us back, limits our scope and overall quality of life
In a success-oriented society, many of us exhibit a degree of perfectionism. And while striving for excellence can be adaptive, perfectionism can hold us back, taking up too much mental room and limiting our scope and overall quality of life. Identifying and accepting the presence of the trait is the first key step. Some small warning signs you might be a perfectionist:
- You are stress-sensitive; you feel and dwell on every bump in the road.
- When things don’t go as planned, you are deeply frustrated, engage in negative self-talk and dwell on it for too long.
- Your emotional response to the outcome (shame, embarrassment, guilt, anger) is often disproportionate to the situation.
- The lesser known, albeit still common, side of perfectionism is performance anxiety and/or procrastination. This is because you want to avoid the strong emotional responses you have come to associate with failure or mistakes. Therefore, you avoid or put off trying.
The School of Life perfectly encapsulates how perfectionism hinders our full potential via this bite-sized video.
Psychotherapy focuses on identifying and breaking the cycle, which is a truly liberating experience
If any of these rings a bell, there is a wonderful range of psychologists here at Peaceful Mind who are passionate about combatting perfectionism. Sessions will focus on identifying and breaking the cycle, which is a truly liberating experience. Challenging your thinking patterns and learning to be compassionate with your perceived “imperfect” traits is a significant part of the process. Humour is an essential part of this process because you quickly see that these thinking patterns don’t hold up, and you begin recognising how utterly nonsensical you are sometimes. There is also a profound and liberating shock as you recognise how much you hold yourself back. The most challenging aspect of combatting perfectionism is dismantling the value our society places on perfection and achievement. In this way, a large aspect of treatment will be letting go of perfect and acknowledging it is a saga not worth pursuing. This then opens you up to exploring your limitations, strengths, and the necessary mistakes you are subject to make as a plain old Homo Sapien. Alongside this, your psychologist will also help you develop the skill of self-compassion and so you begin to accept the notion of good enough. At this stage, the bar you set for yourself should start lowering. It’s a long work in progress but a freeing one you will later be grateful you started. Personally, I felt exhausted, as though I’d been hit with the constant fatigue of long covid. But then I realised my body was rebounding, recovering from the exhaustion of maintaining it all, all of the time.