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Perfectionism... Is it Driving Us Crazy?

The results of a recent study provide interesting reading. The study reported on rising levels of perfectionism in adults (18-25 years) across the United States, Britain and Canada. It observed generational changes in perfectionism over a 27-year period from 1989 to 2016. This may help explain trends in our own sphere of the world.

What is perfectionism? Perfectionism involves placing excessive importance on high standards as well as being overly selfcritical and punishing. When we place such unrealistic standards on ourselves, it results in a sense of failure and self-criticism. The same applies when we place unrealistic expectations on others. They can feel devalued and criticised.

Social norms set expectations. A disturbing finding from the research (Curran & Hill, 2017) was the large increase in socially-prescribed perfectionism. Social norms (e.g. beliefs about education, human rights, behaviour etc.) are messages (via advertising, films, TV, media etc.) that communicate to people what is desirable. People unconsciously evaluate themselves and others according to social norms. The research identified that over the past 30 years the importance that society places on perfectionism has increased by 32% - more than double the increase in self-prescribed perfectionism. This means that people have generally become more preoccupied with how they compare to others as a measure of their own success.

Socially prescribed perfectionism means that people’s estimate of themselves is based on outward appearances and approval of others. When unrealistic expectations surround people, they lose their sense of reality and face the dilemma of constantly not “measuring up.” Social media helps create images and stories of success (e.g. body appearance, clothing, friends, travel). Could the rise of social media be linked to the steep increase in perfectionism?

The down-side. Although some might say that perfectionism is nothing more than self-improvement or achievement, basing our self-worth on it has a downside. This appears to be affecting young people the most.

The authors noted some disturbing trends, including a significant increase in body image concerns and eating disorders in adolescent girls; concerns about body muscularity in boys; increasing use of plastic surgery by young people; a sense of isolation and sensitivity to negative feedback or mistakes. Young people are also experiencing higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Perfectionism has also trickled down into parenting practices, with parents increasingly anxious, feeling pressure to make their children successful as well as themselves. Children can absorb their parents’ worry and become hypersensitive to making mistakes.

How perfectionism works against us. In an imperfect world, relying on perfectionism as a one-size-fits-all approach is going to lead to problems. Perfectionism only provides options of success or failure. It doesn’t allow for the fact that most of the situations we encounter in life don’t have black and white answers. They are far more in the grey zone. Perfectionism encourages rigid thinking.

What about just good enough? A pioneer in child psychiatry coined the term “good-enough” parenting. This is a style of parenting that doesn’t aim for perfectionism. Instead, it aims for a balance between being an involved and helpful parent, and at the same time, allowing freedom for a child to try and fail. This helps build a child’s sense of personal mastery as well as the sense that failure is part of learning.

We could well ask: when is a good approximation a more useful goal? Rather than measuring ourselves against unrealistic, flawed goals, what about the possibility that where we are at in life is ok.

Perfectionism also causes procrastination, because the perfectionist doesn’t want to risk failure. But avoiding challenges and new situations just results in loss of confidence and anxiety. Attempting things gets results and builds confidence over time. So rather than aiming for a perfect result, focus on getting things done and learning from experience.

The reality is that no one is or can be perfect. Our imperfection makes us interesting. Our vulnerabilities make us more relatable. Let’s remember that most of the time, doing our best will result in feeling much happier and more satisfied.

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