Whilst we can all desire to do things ‘right’ and not make mistakes, for some, the need to never make an error can become out of control and the pressure placed on themselves to be ‘perfect’ can become destructive. So, what is the difference between wanting to do well and desiring to achieve the unachievable?
Perfectionism is defined as the ‘need to be or appear to be perfect‘ it can also refer to those who believe ‘it’s possible to be perfect‘.
Perfectionism is a personality trait, and can include, but is not limited to:
There is not one known cause of perfectionism. However, it can be a learned behaviour. It can also be linked to environment, for instance, living in a society which measures success by achievement not by compassion outhouse living in critical environments. Those with perfectionism traits believe that value is only placed on them if they are ‘perfect’ whether for their achievements, appearance or actions. It should noted, that there is a vast difference between being conscientious and wanting to do ones best and to ridicule yourself because you are not performing to an unachievable standard.
In a study by Curran and Hill (2017) it was identified that levels of perfectionism in young people has doubled between 1989 and 2016, frequently attached to a belief that ‘other people expect you to be perfect’.
Whilst wanting to do well and having high expectations of oneself can be deemed admirable. Perfectionism can be a motivator to some individuals and help them to make progress.
However, at its fundamental core, the desire to always be right, never make a mistake and to put so much pressure on yourself that you cannot see you strengths or abilities means that perfectionism can cause high levels of stress and upset to those who experience it. Perfectionism has been found linked to mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, burnout, OCD, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
One study, by McGrath et al (2012) found that those who have self-critical perfectionism were more likely to experience depressive symptoms. In a further study, Hill and Curran (2016) found that those with perfectionism were more likely to experience burnout.
A further study identified that academic achievement is a common factor correlated to the development of perfectionism concerns and strivings ((Damian etc al, 2016).
Perfectionism is a complex personality trait, and some individuals will require professional support to help them balance their thoughts and feelings. However, some steps that can be used to support young people with perfectionist traits include:
1 – Recognise which elements of life it affects – identifying which areas of life perfectionism impacts
2 – What is the fear in the worst case scenario? – what is their greatest fear which aggravates their perfectionism traits? Are they scared of failure? Embarrassment? Not meeting others expectations? Their own expectations?
3 – What are realistic expectations? What changes do we need to make to make expectations more realistic? – Supporting young people to identify what their expectations are and to check that these are – achievable & realistic. Supporting young people to identify their expectations at the start can help them to measure if they have been met. Failing to identify the expectation can mean that they feel that the ‘cannot stop’ for instance, if in their revision they set to complete 10 practice questions they will have a greater sense of ‘achievement’ that ‘revising for 2 hours’ where they may feel that they ‘have not done enough’
4 – How do we acknowledge and recognise success? – Learning to celebrate and recognise our effort not outcomes can allow us to take the pressure off. For instance, if we have completed our work early and have time to relax and enjoy some fun activities recognising and celebrating the balance of working smarter not longer. Learning to recognise our ‘non-work’ successes is also vital. For instance, celebrating taking some time for self-care, socialising or hobbies as being a fundamental part of our week can reduce the stress and anxiety associated with perfectionism.
5 – How do we talk to ourself? – If our internal language is focussed on negative and self-critical language it can further exasperate our traits. For instance, telling ourselves that we ‘are not good enough’ when we have worked hard at something, will remove any sense of success or enjoyment. Praising ourselves for a job well done, our best efforts or the skills we have used allows us to give ourselves a sense of worth.
6 – Make goals smaller – Perfectionists can easily develop goals which are unrealistic or take a long period of time to achieve so have an ongoing sense of ‘not doing enough’ ‘not doing well enough’ or ‘not being good enough’. Breaking long term goals into smaller, more manageable pieces allows us to measure progress, celebrate milestones and develop a more effective attitude to our work. For instance, ‘by Friday I will complete ABC’ is more achievable than ‘by Friday I will complete A-Z’. It also supports a perfectionist to pace themselves and check in and be accountable to themselves and their expectations.
7 – Wider activities – If perfectionism affects one or more areas of life, for instance, school work and exams, it is imperative that we shift the focus and look at the wider picture. For instance, how to we counterbalance our week. If perfectionism affects our school/work life, ensuring that there is ample time in the week to take part in more relaxing or less restrained tasks which do not have high expectations. This is fundamental to ensuring that stress and anxiety if managed and to avoid burnout. It also aids productivity and creativity.
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Curran T, Hill AP. Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychol Bull. 2019 Apr;145(4):410-429. doi: 10.1037/bul0000138. Epub 2017 Dec 28. PMID: 29283599.
Damian, L E; Stoeber, J; Negru-Subtirica, O & Baban, A (2016) On the Developemnt of Perfectionism: The Longitudinal Role of Academic Achievement and Academic Efficacy, Journal of Personality, Volume 85 Issue 4, p565-577 https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12261
Hill, Andrew P. and Curran, Thomas (2016) Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20 (3). pp. 269-288. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868315596286
McGrath, D. S., Sherry, S. B., Stewart, S. H., Mushquash, A. R., Allen, S. L., Nealis, L. J., & Sherry, D. L. (2012). Reciprocal relations between self-critical perfectionism and depressive symptoms: Evidence from a short-term, four-wave longitudinal study. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 44(3), 169–181. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027764
Perfectionism is on the Rise – https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180219-toxic-perfectionism-is-on-the-rise