‘Being a perfectionist’ used to be the answer you saved for that awkward job interview question: what’s your biggest weakness? Because, obviously, you couldn’t possibly think of anything worse about your work ethic than striving to be perfect, right? Yet there is a dark side to perfectionism, and research suggests it’s on the rise among young people
CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on the Evening Standard
A 2018 study from the University of Bath found that younger generations report substantially higher levels of perfectionism, or having exceptionally high standards and being overly self-critical, compared with previous generations at the same period in their lives.
Using data taken from 40,000 North American and British university students, researchers found evidence that the extent to which young people place an irrational importance on ‘being perfect’, had increased, as had the extent to which they felt that others judge them harshly and that they must display perfection in order to secure approval. The researchers concluded that it’s a response to the neo-liberal society we now live in and listed growing competition for university places and jobs, and increasingly demanding parents, among contributing factors. Throw into the mix the exponential rise of social media, where perfectionism is idealised behind filters, and you’ve surely got a recipe for disaster.
The World Economic Forum describes it as a ‘hidden epidemic of perfectionism’ and notes a substantial body of evidence linking perfectionism to serious mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. “It’s the belief that you’re not good enough [for some reason] so that you then dedicate your entire life to proving that you are,” says Chris Ward, who has just published a book about his own pursuit for perfectionism, Less Perfect More Happy.
Clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, says that, contrary to the name, “Perfectionism isn’t necessarily about the pursuit of being perfect; instead it’s about never being good enough. While the name implies you’re trying to achieve something, really it’s trying to avoid something (failure).
“It’s an internal push to do more, and always be better but, ultimately, it costs us more than it buys us,” she adds.
Of course there is nothing wrong with simply wanting to do well, having drive and high standards for yourself and others; so when does this become a problem? Chris says it’s to do with the why you’re pursuing something. ”There’s a difference between doing something as well as you can and making something perfect. If you enjoy the journey of doing something, or you do it because the rewards are going to be great, say a pay rise or medal, that’s great. But if you’re doing it because you’re obsessed about proving you’re good enough – that’s what perfectionism is. There’s a distinct difference.”
It’s when the balance starts to tip, Ellen says – for example, when a healthy appetite for exercising regularly becomes something compulsive and wholly unhealthy. This is when imposter syndrome comes in too. “If there was a venn diagram between imposter syndrome and perfectionism, the overlap would be self-criticism,” she explains. “The feeling that I’m not good enough, I’m going to be revealed, they’ll find out I don’t belong here and think I’m stupid incompetent or unqualified. Chris agrees. “[It’s] often part of the same thing because it’s just you being scared to be found out that you’re not perfect or good enough.”
So what are the tell-tale signs that you’re a perfectionist?
One common trait of perfectionism is procrastination, but not for the reasons you might normally attribute to it, such as laziness. “Perfectionists procrastinate better, longer and harder than anyone else,” Chris writes in his book. “As their projects need to be perfect, and as perfection is impossible to achieve, they can come up with any excuse to delay making the decisions as to whether to commit and start yet another long, endless round of workaholism.”
“Often they fear that they’re not going to be able to perform to the level that others might expect, or that the end result won’t be good enough,” Ellen explains, “so it’s not actually the avoidance of a task, it’s avoidance of negative emotions associated with a task. If starting something makes someone feel incompetent, anxious or inadequate of course they’re going to avoid it.”
But if you suspect a perfectionist is procrastinating, Chris strongly advises against telling someone to ‘just get on with it.’ “That’s literally like saying to someone who’s depressed ‘Just cheer up, it just can’t happen’. A perfectionist cannot believe that something is good enough just because you’ve told them it is.”
Other elements of perfectionism can be seen in the way these people make decisions, Ellen says. There are two extremes. Those who make snappy decisions and believe that they are absolutely making the ‘correct’ or ‘right’ decision, and others who are so worried about making the wrong decision, and regret that they spend a disproportionate amount of time agonising over it, researching, making pros and cons lists and talking to people for reassurance. “That’s the hallmark of perfectionism,” she says, “because, even if the end result is excellent, the process of getting there is torture.”
Not being able to delegate is also typical of perfectionists – the belief that if you want something done properly you have to do it yourself. “Again, this is the idea that it costs you more than it buys you. If you’re not able to get all your work done because you can’t distribute it to direct reports, or slowing down projects because you’re stuck in the trees and losing sight of the forest, or things are on hold because you’re stuck on a tiny detail, then it becomes a problem – and it boils down to a lack of trust,” Ellen explains.
Being a perfectionist can, not only hold you back in tasks at work, but can also have a detrimental impact on your relationships at home, says Chris, who found himself being argumentative, demanding, controlling and righteous both as a parent and partner, too.
And this may even prompt a vicious cycle, as perfectionism runs in families. Chris says both his parents were perfectionists – though there’s a lack of evidence about whether it’s genetic or simply a result of nurture.
Perfectionists often have having highly critical parents, Ellen says, or parents who ‘hothouse’ (have very high standards and push their children to perform very early on) which can result in their kids perceiving that love is contingent on them doing well at school.
So if you suspect you’re a perfectionist how can you be less of one?
Have more self-compassion
“As a recovering perfectionist this is the hardest change because that internal cattle prod is such a habit. Being kinder to yourself really is the key because self-criticism is what changes high standards into perfectionism,” says Ellen.
Spend some time figuring out why you don’t feel good enough
“It could be a combination of a few things; not getting the grades you wanted, or the rejection of asking someone out when you were a teenager,” says Chris. In his own case, he says his perfectionism stems from feeling useless at school and craving attention and validation from his father.
Practice striving for excellence for the sake of excellence
Don’t work extra hard just to compensate for, or fill, a deficit, says Ellen. “For example, work out regularly because you want to be healthy, not because you feel like your body isn’t good enough.
Learn to deal with overreaction if something goes wrong
“Perfectionists act like everything is on red alert,” says Ellen. “Ask yourself ‘Is this a one, two or a three?’ Try to differentiate between what doesn’t require a reaction, what deserves a middle-to-moderate reaction and what is an emergency – 75% of things should really be a one.”