Moving Forward from Perfectionism

Before beginning any essay, assignment or project, my perfectionism kicks in. It brings with it panic, procrastination, insomnia and other forms of emotional and physical distress. The perfectionist in me felt the need to get this article done right (translation: perfect). Next came all the self-doubt, questioning of ability, a dash of imposter syndrome, with unlimited panic and plenty of procrastination to go around. I saw my experience reflected in the material I had before me, and so writing this article forced me to delve deeper into my perfectionism. And, here is what I found: 


While researching, I was met with facts about how pervasive perfectionism is in our culture today, especially among university students. A recent study published by Thomas Curran and Andrew P Hill (2017) shows how perfectionism has risen by 33% since 1989 in college students. They conducted a cross-temporal meta-analysis of American, British and Canadian college student responses to the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. Their research links this rise in perfectionism to the ongoing increase in mental health issues and within the broader socio-cultural framework. 


“Perfectionism is broadly defined as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990)”. In their research, Curran and Hill observe the multidimensional approach to perfectionism as they consider the many forms perfectionism can take and the varied outcomes associated with each type. They rely mainly on Hewitt and Flett’s model of the three types of perfectionism.

The three types:


  1. Self-oriented perfectionists attach irrational weight on being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, which are impossible to realise. They are also harshly self-critical when they can’t meet their impossible expectations. 


  1. Socially prescribed perfectionists feel the heavy burden of external expectations. They believe their social context is “excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval”.


  1.   Other oriented perfectionists have their expectations directed outwards. They impose their unrealistic expectations/standards on those around them and evaluate others critically.


Often these three types are interrelated, with one type being more dominant, depending on where your self-worth is obtained from. I identify with both self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionists, as I often associate my sense of self-worth to both achievement and/or outside approval. While other-oriented perfectionists seek self-esteem through others respect and admiration of them.  


None of these perfectionist tendencies or types is healthy. In an interview with Times Higher Education Curran tells us that “Perfectionism is highly correlated with serious mental illness because perfectionists are highly stress reactive and vigilant to achievement failure and interpersonal rejection,”. Therefore, all forms of perfectionism have severe implications for our mental wellbeing. Handley et al also found that significant associations exist between certain dimensions of perfectionism, pathological worry and Genralised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This makes sense as perfectionists share many cognitive distortions associated with GAD. A few being an “all or nothing” mentality, catastrophising or blowing things out of proportion, should statements, jumping to conclusions (mind reading, fortune teller error) and disqualifying the positive. All three types end up linked to some form of mental health problems to varying degrees.  


Self-oriented perfectionism is considered the most complex of the three. It has been associated with clinical depression, eating disorders, and early death. It is also associated with higher physiological reactivity (e.g., elevated blood pressure). The rise in competitiveness and individualism is said to explain the increase in self-oriented perfectionism best. Other-oriented perfectionism is the least studied. Recent research ties it to higher levels of vindictiveness, narcissism, hostility, and a tendency to blame others for personal shortcomings. Low levels of altruism, compliance, and trust are also associated with this kind of perfectionism. 


For Curran, the “…most concerning” dimension of perfectionism is socially prescribed perfectionism. He explains why this is so by writing that "Young people are seemingly internalising a preeminent contemporary myth that things—including themselves—should be perfect.”. Our influencer culture and meritocratic institutions encourage us to judge ourselves based on our accomplishments and reinforce the idea that others judge us on this basis too. The socially prescribed perfectionist begins to believe that others would disapprove of them if they let their vulnerability or assumed failure show.  


Socially prescribed perfectionism is seen as the most debilitating of the three. The perceived expectations and judgement of others are experienced as excessive and uncontrollable which makes them vulnerable to negative emotional states. Socially prescribed perfectionism is more prevalent in individuals belonging to communal cultures (e.g. Asia) than those who belong to more individualistic cultures ([e.g., North America & Europe). However, these cultural trends correspond with an overall increase in this strand of perfectionism. 

Curran and Hill’s study is the first to look at broader cultural causes that could explain this rise in perfectionism. Most research deals with parental and immediate environmental influences, not the economic and cultural forces at play. In their study, Curran and Hill look at perfectionism as "a cultural phenomenon”.


Curran and Hill recognise three cultural changes that have been useful in explaining recent shifts in the younger generation’s sense of self and identity. These changes are:


- the emergence of neoliberalism and competitive individualism 

- the rise of the doctrine of meritocracy

- increasingly anxious and controlling parental practices.


Neoliberal governance encourages competitive individualism, and the response has been the quest to perfect the self and our lifestyles. Communal traits become less of a priority. The trend of competitive individualism, rising status anxiety and focus on status possessions and image goods can be seen perfectly illustrated in today’s influencer culture. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are shown as occupying 2 out of every 5 min spent online (Global WebIndex, 2016). Their popularity comes from their allowing us to curate a ‘perfect’ public image and doing so comes at a high cost. One such price is our heightened exposure to unrealistic body ideals that is contributing significantly to the rise of body dysmorphia and eating disorders. For example, it was found that the incidence of body dysmorphia and eating disorders has risen by approximately 30% among late adolescent girls since the advent of social media (e.g. Smink, van Hoeken, & Hoek, 2012; Thompson & Durrani, 2007).


Curran and Hill emphasise that"… rather than alleviate presentational and interpersonal anxieties, studies indicate that exposure to others' perfect self-representations within social media can intensify one's own body image concerns and sense of social alienation.” 

The irrational ideals surrounding the perfectible self are reflected on our screens and institutions which create the ideal cultural climate for a rise in perfectionism. The result is also a self that is ruled by anxiety. In Curran’s words “That is, a sense of self overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation, characterised by a focus on deficiencies, and sensitive to criticism and failure." Perfectionism becomes a way to cope, and "to feel safe, connected, and of worth—in neoliberalism’s new culture of competitive individualism.”. 


Another socio-cultural shift towards meritocracy means that social institutions (especially schools and universities) place pressure on young people by creating a need to perform and achieve. Curran and Hill also talk about how the changes in parental practices reflect an increase in both anxious and controlling parenting that can help explain the rise of perfectionism.


Having dealt with panic attacks and generalised anxiety for a while, when transitioning to university life I had a hard time managing my panic attacks and having come to university three weeks late due to visa delays did not help. My self-worth soon became tied to how well I was doing at university, how many friends I made, and how quickly I made up for missing freshers’ week and the first two teaching weeks. The unspoken pressure of my perfectionist standards crushed me, and I especially felt the consequences during seminars and close to essay deadlines. I got help from the counsellor, and one of the things she helped me understand was how closely related my perfectionism and anxiety were. 


I realised how paralysing perfectionism had become, and now I can see it for what it is a flawed coping mechanism. I though in black and white, catastrophized and had a fear of failure and sense of impending doom looming over me. This perfectionist tendency which I did not see as a cause for concern began to bear a resemblance to my anxiety, panic and exhaustion. I now see that my perfectionism is driven by a need to gain control of my mental state by counterintuitively working towards ideals that are often not my own. 


In perfectionism researcher Hewitt’s words perfectionism is essentially “a faulty way to cope with that defective sense of self and a sense of not fitting in with others, not fitting in with the world, not having a place in the world,", and so it is worth addressing the underlying issues - which may be the longing for deeper connections with others, a sense of defectiveness with the self, attachments or the socio-cultural factors explored by Curran and Hill. Don’t despair if you identify with any or most of these traits. Recognising perfectionism and how it manifests for you is an essential first step to curbing it. 


Hewitt writes that “once you understand the perfectionism's function— a way of seeking security, love, self-worth — then you can understand the deeper emotional machinery underlying a behavior”. This recognition of the deep-rooted fears behind perfectionism helps open us up to finding more proactive and less destructive coping mechanisms. The key to dealing with perfectionism partly seems to be in changing your relationship with the fear failure. 

Tips on how to do so: 


-      Change the expectation/standard from it needs to be perfect to it needs to get done. I find that continually reminding myself that done is better than perfect helps me. By replacing the unspoken expectation of perfection with positive self-talk helps me gently retrain my inner voice to be just a little less unreasonable. 


-      Question your fears: Replace the abstract and anxiety-inducing catastrophic thinking around failure with a concrete question; what if I fail? Or What is the worst that could happen? This will make the fear tangible, and easier for you to problem solve and reinforce your ability to cope with failure. Then, try shifting your focus on positive what ifs’ – what if it works out?


-      Be Process-oriented. Create realistic schedules. Break down larger tasks and goals into manageable steps. - Whatever goals you set yourself out to achieve in life, it will be difficult. It helps to be aware of and budget for the difficulties and obstacles that your goals will entail. 

-      Consider Counselling if you’re struggling with any of the above and if you feel like you could use the support. I know it served me well.