- Sep 9, 2021
3 min read
The Toxic Illusion of Perfectionism
Updated: Dec 30, 2022
Do you often pride yourself for having high standards? Or perhaps you’re someone who hyper focuses on finessing every detail in both work and life? Well, these traits are found within perfectionism and can be well-celebrated. However, being on the extreme end of the spectrum can put you in a troubling paradox. Oftentimes, perfectionists feel superior for having lofty goals but they also crumble in inferiority because they know they can’t achieve them.
Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work draws a clear distinction between healthy striving versus unhealthy perfectionism. Essentially, healthy striving comes from self-worthiness while unhealthy perfectionism is used to mask self-blame and insecurity. And because perfectionism comes from a self-defeating place, it can drive people towards a host of mental health issues.
How does perfectionism impair mental wellbeing?
On the surface, perfectionism is perceived as a positive trait rather than a flaw. That’s because perfectionists often come off confident at the beginning of any challenging event. What we don’t see is that they intensely feel every bump on the road. Decades of research* have proven that higher levels of perfectionism correlate to lower levels of wellbeing. Here’s why:
1) Impossible goals
Perfectionists are inclined to set impressive goals. However, these goals can be unrealistic, which sets them up for failure. As a result, they constantly feel overwhelmed and inadequate. And these feelings become more detrimental when they fail to meet their grand expectations.
2) Paralyzing procrastination
Perfectionists tend to wait for “the stars to be aligned” to begin a project. For instance, they might wait for “the perfect moment”, or until everything is done to a tee. But more often than not, the stars don’t align. And they find themselves exhaustively sprinting to meet the deadline. Or worse, never begin the project at all.
3) Black-or-white mindset
Because perfectionists are very error-conscientious, they live with lots of automatic negative thoughts. For example, they think in an all-or-nothing or black-or-white mindset. In a perfectionist’s shoes, let’s say you’re working on a presentation deck for work. At the end of it, because you feel like it isn’t “the best you’ve ever created”, you’ll perceive yourself as a complete failure. Very quickly, these polarizing thoughts can tear down the fractions of your self-esteem.
4) Mental health issues
Perfectionism is empirically proven to have a strong bond between mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. It is also a bigger risk factor for suicide than previously thought. Evidence can be seen through this 2014 study*, suggesting that among young people who die by suicide, nearly 70% placed high demands on themselves and had high expectations.
Four ways to tame perfectionism
If you struggle with perfectionism, know that you aren’t alone. In 2019, this meta-analysis found there was a 33% rise in perfectionist tendencies from 1989 to 2016 among 40,000 students. Especially in an age where we’re subjected to everyone’s highlight reel, habits of self-criticism have become increasingly natural. However, here are a few ways you can soften your inner perfectionist and cultivate better self-compassion.
1) Re-assess your current goals
First, list down your goals and re-evaluate your expectations. Next, glance through your current commitments and space for rest. As a perfectionist, it’s more helpful than not to be a little more relaxed with your deadlines and milestones. Also, don’t hesitate to get family and friends as sounding boards to help you stay level-headed.
2) Reframe your mindset
A balanced mindset is the key to keeping toxic perfectionist habits at bay. When you find yourself stuck in negative black-or-white thoughts, write them down. Then, challenge those thoughts by introducing softer perspectives. This could look like accepting good-enough work, embracing imperfection, or admitting that we don’t know all the answers.
3) Practice self-compassion
Self-compassion means replacing your inner critical megaphone with kinder messages to both yourself and others. It’s saying things like ‘You really tried hard at that. I’m proud of the effort you put in.’ Alternatively, practicing mindfulness meditation* is proven to strengthen that nonjudgmental element too.
4) Seek professional help
Perfectionists can be ambivalent towards seeking help as they think they should handle their problems on their own. However, we must be honest with ourselves about whether these mindsets and behaviors are doing us good or harm. If it's the latter, and your mental health is suffering, getting treatment for underlying issues can help break the vicious cycle of perfectionism and anxiety, depression.
In hustle culture, perfectionism seems like a necessary ingredient for success. However, this false notion can quickly fester into self-defeating behaviors that hinder us from our goals. While it requires time and practice, peeling ourselves from our perfectionist tendencies can greatly decrease the level of tension we feel. Ultimately, it’s about cultivating a safe environment where imperfect progress is not only embraced but celebrated too.
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2014 study about the destructiveness of perfectionism
Research about mindfulness meditation