The dangers of being a perfectionist

Shuttestock.com/ Andrey_Popov

So many people like to describe themselves as a perfectionist, but are they? Being a perfectionist means more than just setting high goals for yourself. Being a perfectionist means always striving for the optimum outcome. It means that when you don’t get that outcome you feel like a failure. While in the modern era the idea of being a perfectionist is often seen as a good thing, new research shows that is very unhealthy and bad for your mental state.

It is normal to want to do your best. When handing in a paper it is normal to think if you had done a little more research could you have produced a better report. You may do one more edit because you know you can do better. It is normal to worry about small errors from the past. The human mind is incredibly adept at kicking your ass right before you go to sleep with some mistake you made five years ago and had almost forgotten. These things make you human, they don’t make you a perfectionist. 

Leading psychologists describe perfectionism as holding yourself to unrealistically high standards and becoming very critical of yourself if you fail to meet these goals. Guilt and shame are common traits of perfectionists who feel incredibly low when they fail to meet a task. It is almost inevitable to happen because no one can succeed to a high degree in everything they do forever. This is what makes perfectionism so dangerous.

A recent meta-analysis of perfectionism found that those who tended more towards perfectionists had higher rates of depression, stress, OCD, and eating disorders. Numerous studies now show that although perfectionism is often highlighted as a good thing (many people mention it in interviews) it is actually bad for your health and overall performance. While some psychologists argue that perfectionism can be adapted so that failure can be taken well and that self-blame can be avoided, the majority of studies say that the two things can not be separated.

Leading psychologists say that if people feel they are perfectionists they need to start looking at failure differently and try to adopt a growth mindset. The idea here is that failure should be welcomed and that every moment you don’t produce the perfect outcome is a moment for you to learn and do better in the future. A fixed mindset is one where people feel they have a certain amount of skills and a certain amount of talent. This is a dangerously negative way to think.

The other remedy recommended by psychologists is to learn something called self-compassion. When you do something and the result is not perfect, imagine how you would take to a friend. Imagine how you would rationally show them that it is perfectly ok and then tell yourself the same thing. The one thing that psychologists did agree on in these studies was that although perfectionism is a negative attribute in someone’s life it can be changed. If you feel you have these tendencies than start to address them. Don’t allow your perfectionism to leave you in a depressed state.

Sadly rates of perfectionism appear to be increasing. In the modern world, people are placing a higher expectation on themselves in order to stay ahead of the competition. The competitive environments that come out of university and the workplace are forcing people to be perfectionists and it is causing lower mental health across the board. Adopt a growth mindset and embrace failure. Do away with the ideals of a perfectionist and understand that life is never about moving up all the time, it is about moving forward.