Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist and if so, do you view it as one of your weaknesses?
Although people who tend to be described as ‘perfectionists’ often strive to have a strong sense of duty and high personal standards, extensive research has found the psychology of this attribute to be somewhat complex. Perfectionism is also linked to anxiety, burnout and depression. Perfectionists are likely to have excessively high standards, be overly critical in evaluating their behaviour and believe their self-worth is contingent on performing perfectly. So whilst certain aspects of perfectionism are seen as beneficial, such tendencies are in fact an obstacle to healthy achievement due to the toll it can take on one’s wellbeing and psychological health.
Well-known social science researcher, Brené Brown, highlights the detrimental effects of perfectionism. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she writes… “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to do your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is not self-improvement or striving for excellence. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight”.
For millennials, or anyone broadly aged between 18 and 35, it’s likely that perfectionism may truly be one of their weaknesses. For this age group, perfectionism is rife, with studies illustrating a large proportion of people in this age group to be experiencing perfectionism, with huge pressure to meet increasingly high standards. Moreover, this can be clearly linked with the alarming and increasing rates of mental illness among young people, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Perfectionism is a weakness and it is making us unwell.
Where does perfectionism come from? In many cases, perfectionists grow up in environments where they were praised for achievement and performance, for example, sporting achievements, good manners, high grades and obeying rules. Somewhere along the way, typically during childhood, a very debilitating belief system is adopted where they believe they are what they accomplish. Healthy achievement is not perfectionism and concern about what other people think. Healthy achievement is about self-improvement.
Social media has also played a part in driving perfectionism, as it is a platform that is centred around judgement and ‘measuring up’ to peers. Young adults were the perfect customers when Facebook launched, because they were a group that were desperate for the validation it offered. For the past decade, children have been encouraged via social media to ‘perform’, to share celebrations, perfect selfies, achievements and holidays. The craving for ‘likes’ and validation only inflates their sense of achievement, which should not be mistaken for their sense of self-worth.
We need to protect ourselves and future generations from perfectionism and understand it as a weakness and not a strength. When we set unattainable goals with a focus on perfecting, pleasing and proving ourselves, our wellbeing and mental health takes a hit. I encourage you to reflect on your own perfectionistic tendencies. How can you better strive for self-improvement rather than perfection and achievement? How can you lay down the shield and show up with the amazing qualities you have to offer? And forget what you see on social media filled with imagery of people winning in life. Because mostly, it’s beautiful lie.
Rebekah Dawson is an Organisational Psychologist and works for Progress People in corporate wellbeing. If you would like further information or if you would like to get in touch, please click here.