Many people shrug as they admit to being a perfectionist, as if it’s both an admirable character trait and a character flaw. That attitude is often offered with kind of a wink, as if to say, “I’m going to do everything right, no matter what, so you should value and admire me.”
But that’s not how life works. The goal of perfectionism might be admirable, but life is unpredictable and changing. We might even wonder if there is such a thing as “perfection.” And which human being should have the last word in defining that lofty idea of perfection?
Social psychologist Thomas Curran warns us in a TED talk to be aware of the dangers of trying to be perfect.
Studies have shown perfectionists often have a lingering sense of dissatisfaction, says Curran. Even more dangerous are the potential mental health disorders that can come with perfectionism.
Curran says reports from mental health professionals show that “...perfectionism conceals a host of psychological difficulties, including things like depression, anxiety, anorexia and bulimia…” Perfectionism can even lead some people to thoughts of suicide.
“Research suggests that perfectionism is rising as society is changing,” says Curran. Looking at research on young people over a 27-year period up to 2016, they’ve responded more and more to a culture that has increasingly emphasized “image.”
Many young people post the daily activities of their lives, and their accomplishments, on social media. The habit of seeking “likes” encourages the need for approval from others. And sometimes that social media “image” is not the true or complete reality of the whole person.
Curran and his colleagues analyzed 27 years of data on college students in the U.S., Canada and Britain and discovered a marked increase in what they describe
as “social perfectionism.” To put it simply, that’s when a person believes “everybody expects me to be perfect.”
When we put so much emphasis on the idea that we can achieve anything we strive for, if we work hard enough, it can set unrealistic goals and therefore make people feel like a failure, says Curran.
That striving for perfection, and the competitiveness that comes with it, begins in school with numerous standardized tests that tend to compare one student with another, or measure an individual student against the group says Curran.
For some young people whose skills and tendencies do not lead to them to success on tests, that can set up years of feeling “less than” others. Tests may unrealistically suggest there is a perfect score to aim for and some students may wrongly believe that if they don’t achieve that perfect score, or very close to it, they are somehow a failure.
We don’t have to look far to find heartbreaking news stories about a young person who achieved great success, often in multiple areas of academics, sports and community service, who took their own lives. And even for those who didn’t stack up achievements, suicide often claims the lives of young people who thought their lives hopeless because of bullying about gender that made them feel less than perfect.
Clinical psychologist Heidi Green sees perfectionism arising from “fear of failure.” We might avoid trying new activities, entering new situations, even passing up educational or job opportunities because they might not be in line with our natural tendencies or talents.
Whether it’s yoga, music, painting or exploring a different type of spiritual path, our lives can be enriched by letting go of fear of failure and embracing the value of being a beginner and learning something new. We limit our happiness by thinking we have to be perfect in everything we do, says Green.
Curran suggests the way to ease the growing anxiety-producing culture of perfectionism begins with parents.
“If we want to help our young people escape the trap of perfectionism, then we will teach them that in a chaotic world, life will often defeat us, but that's OK. Failure is not weakness,” said Curran. “But most of all, if we want our young people to enjoy mental, emotional and psychological health, then we will invite them to celebrate the joys and the beauties of imperfection as a normal and natural part of everyday living and loving.”
Curran, Thomas, “Our Dangerous Obsession with Perfectionism,” TEDMED Talk, November 2018.
Curran, T. and Hill, A.P., “Perfectionism Is Increasing over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016,” National Institutes of Health, Psychology Bulletin, April 2019
Green, Heidi, “Perfectionism Isn’t Always about Being Perfect,” healthyplace.com, Dec. 12, 2018
Agathangelou, Fay, “How To Overcome Your Fear of Failure,” healthyplace.com, March 24, 2015