Perfectly Miserable: the Psychology of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a concept that we use all the time in daily life. It can be talked about as a good thing, with a hint of pride. There’s a ring of the high achiever about it: I have high standards, I like to do things well.

Perfectionism, however, has a dark side. It isn’t just about doing things well, it is about how we react when things don’t go as well as we expected, and also what we perceive other people’s expectations are for us.

Perfectionism: A Complex Beast

Perfectionism is a complex beast and there are different dimensions of perfectionism. Psychological researchers describe perfectionism as striving for flawlessness, holding excessively high personal standards, and having overly negative reactions to perceived mistakes and setbacks. Researchers distinguish between self-oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism.

Self-oriented perfectionism involves demanding a high level of performance from oneself and focusing on one’s shortcomings. Doubting one’s decisions and doubting whether something has been done correctly or not can be a feature of this self-oriented perfectionism. It can also be accompanied by an extreme need for organisation.

The typical perfectionist is stuck in a cycle where each new task is another opportunity for self-criticism, disappointment, and perceived failure.

Our Own Worst Critics

One of the key features of perfectionism relates to the way we react to our own mistakes. Perfectionists have a harsh way of reacting to themselves when they fail to live up to the high standards they set for themselves; they are often highly self-critical, and attack themselves when they feel they have not achieved perfection.

Perfectionists are their own worst critics, “good enough” is never enough. As a result, the typical perfectionist is stuck in a cycle where each new task is another opportunity for self-criticism, disappointment, and perceived failure.

Socially prescribed perfectionism refers to the perception of others as demanding of perfection, and withholding of approval unless perfection is achieved. Research shows that there is a link between having a mother who is a perfectionist or has anxiety or depression, and being a perfectionist oneself. Some theorists suggest that perfectionism develops when children pick up the message that they must earn their parents love and approval through behaving perfectly and achieving.

As Alanis Morissette describes so well in her song Perfect: ‘We love you, just the way you are, if you’re perfect’.

Alanis Morissette sings about the pressure to be the perfect child. Source

As well as our experience within the family, early academic success has also been found to be one of the possible causes of perfectionism, which is a word of warning to parents – be careful what you wish for your children!

Link Between Perfectionism and Suicidal Thoughts

It is clear then that this definition of perfectionism is maladaptive and unhelpful and it is not surprising that perfectionism has been linked to a variety of mental health problems including eating disorders, anxiety and depression in children and adults. In a recent meta-analytic review, researchers found that perfectionism is linked to suicidality. People who were higher in perfectionism experienced more suicidal thoughts, and were statistically more likely to make more suicide attempts.

Perfectionism is a risk factor for a number of serious mental health issues. Perfectionists are at risk of feeling inadequate and worthless, and instead of recognising that the standards they set themselves are too high or too inflexible, the perfectionist feels that instead it is something that is deficient in them that is the problem, which can contribute then to low mood, depression and anxiety, and even thinking about ending one’s life.

Coping With Perfectionism

However, for the perfectionists amongst us, it is not all bad news. Perfectionism is not something that is fixed, from which you can never escape. One can learn ways of managing perfectionism so that it is not such a destructive force in life. There is growing interest within the field of psychology in trans-diagnostic ways of working and addressing the core psychological components underlying a wide range of mental health concerns. Perfectionism is a concern that psychologists often encounter in the therapy room, and a number of psychological approaches have been shown to be effective in managing perfectionism.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up About It

It is one thing to strive for excellence and to want to excel, but it is quite another to beat ourselves up endlessly for not achieving perfection. A cornerstone of resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity but this is extremely difficult to do if one has perfectionistic tendencies.

The perfectionist finds it difficult to bounce back because he or she is too busy beating themselves up and re-running in their minds all the things they should have done better!  To learn and grow we need to be free to make mistakes without fear of recrimination from ourselves and others. Through psychological therapy, one can learn to increase psychological flexibility and stop being a slave to the perfectionistic voice.

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