The Problem with Perfectionism
Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill’s a couple of years ago published a meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016. It is the first study to compare perfectionism across generations and it has found significant increases in perfectionism among more recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada.
When the finding where announced, Thomas Curran of the University of Bath said:
“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,”
“Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed, and they feel perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected, and of worth.”
In the study the authors measured three distinct varieties of perfectionism: self-oriented, which involves holding yourself to impossibly high standards; socially prescribed, in which you perceive that others have unreasonable expectations for you; and other-oriented, in which you place excessively high standards on others.
“This finding suggests that young people are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly, and that they are increasingly inclined to display perfection as a means of securing approval”
The rising trends were evident in all three types of perfectionism, says Curran, but
“perhaps most concerning was the rise of socially prescribed perfectionism. Young people are seemingly internalizing a preeminent contemporary myth that things—including themselves—should be perfect.”
“As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists …We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue.” — (Katie Rasmussen, Child Development and Perfectionism Researcher at West Virginia University).
The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means that they are getting sicker, sadder and even undermining their own true potential.
A Religious Perspective on Perfectionism
Russell M. Nelson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in his talk Perfection Pending given in the the October 1995 General Conference said:
If I were to ask which of the Lord’s commandments is most difficult to keep, many of us might cite Matt. 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Keeping this commandment can be a concern because each of us is far from perfect, both spiritually and temporally…When comparing one’s personal performance with the supreme standard of the Lord’s expectation, the reality of imperfection can at times be depressing.
We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips!
More recently, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in his talk at the October 2017 General Conference titled Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually on the same topic explained,
My brothers and sisters, except for Jesus, there have been no flawless performances on this earthly journey we are pursuing, so while in mortality let’s strive for steady improvement without obsessing over what behavioral scientists call “toxic perfectionism.” We should avoid that latter excessive expectation of ourselves and of others.
A Research Perspective on Perfectionism
To understand the dangers of perfectionism, a quote from an article in Psychology Today may help:
“For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A one-way ticket to unhappiness, perfectionism is typically accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. And love isn’t a refuge; in fact, it feels way too conditional on performance.” — (Quoted in https://www.millennialstar.org/nobodys-perfect-a-look-at-toxic-perfectionism-and-depression/)
Dr. Don Miguel Ruiz, spiritual counselor and popular author also wrote,
“We form an image of what perfection is in order to try to be good enough. We create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody. We especially try to please the ones who love us, like mom and dad, big brothers and sisters, the priests and the teacher. We create this image, but the image is not real. We are never going to be perfect from this point of view. Not being perfect, we reject ourselves. And the level of self-rejection depends upon how effective the adults were in breaking our integrity. …………..We cannot forgive ourselves for not being perfect”. — (Quoted in https://www.millennialstar.org/nobodys-perfect-a-look-at-toxic-perfectionism-and-depression/)
Many people are surprised to learn that perfectionism and low self-esteem often are closely associated. This happens because perfectionists usually measure themselves by what they couldn’t accomplish, rather than what they were able to do. For example, they may become discouraged because they arrived in second place in a competition and not first, or they may focus on a few tasks that they were not able to complete in a project, and discount the progress they made in other areas.
People with perfectionist tendencies usually set up unrealistic goals or too high expectations, which end up creating feelings of failure when they cannot reach them.
It’s important to understand that being a perfectionist is not the same thing as having healthy goals. Trying to grow and improve ourselves is a healthy undertaking, but only when combined with the understanding that it takes time to improve and that despite our best efforts, we will still have imperfections.
Unfortunately, when people doesn’t accept their own weaknesses and failures, they never feel “good enough” and their self-esteem is weakened.
Procrastination and decision paralysis often accompany perfectionism. Even making a simple decision can be a difficult task for perfectionists, because of the fear of making wrong choices. Consequently, perfectionists may postpone making decisions or even expressing their ideas, because they are afraid of making mistakes. Unfortunately, the more we delay to make decisions that can improve our lives, or even to explain our thoughts to others, the more our self-esteem is weakened.
It is easy to see how perfectionism and low self-esteem may become part of a vicious cycle. The more people are unsuccessful to meet their own high expectations, the worse they feel about themselves and then the harder they try to meet impossible expectations in an attempt to improving their feelings of self-worth.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brené Brown defines perfectionism as a self-destructive and addictive belief system driven by feelings of shame.
“Research shows that perfectionism hampers success…In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis.” — (Brené Brown)
Absolute perfection is impossible, at least in this life, but rather than accept this truth, people with perfectionist tendencies often go on seeking to achieve it, and by so doing, they also tend to strain relationships, because they try to appear perfect to those around them in an effort to feel loved and accepted. They often try to hide their imperfections and weaknesses, but this behavior damages closeness in relationships and over time can lead to exhaustion, because it’s unsustainable.
The Gift of Imperfection
Overcoming perfectionist tendencies can be difficult in our society. We are surrounded by the portrayal of unrealistic standards of accomplishment, beauty, and life styles.
“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” —(Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are)
In her latest book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown says that it’s important to distinguish perfectionism from healthy striving for excellence.
Here follow Dr. Brown’s definitions of perfectionism:
- Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame.
- Perfectionism is an unattainable goal. It’s more about perception than internal motivation, and there is no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy is spent trying.
- Perfectionism is addictive, because when we invariably do experience shame, judgement and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right.
- Perfectionism actually sets us up to feel shame, judgement and blame, which then leads to more shame, judgement and blame: It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough.
And, this is what she says that perfectionism is NOT:
- It’s not striving for excellence. It’s not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move.
- It’s not the self-protection we think it is. It’s a 20 tonne shield we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.
- Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfection is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Early praise for achievement and performance has become a dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it, please, perform, perfect, prove.”
- Perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows perfectionism hampers achievement and is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis, or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.
- Lastly, perfectionism is not a way to avoid shame. Perfectionism is a function of shame.
Perfectionism and Striving for Excellence
‘My life has been nothing but a failure,’ — (Claude Monet)
The famous painter Claude Monet was a perfectionist. He often destroyed paintings in a temper – including 15 meant to open an exhibition.
Perfectionism is built on a sad irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own goals.
“There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer…It’s something that cuts across everything, in terms of psychological problems.” — (Sarah Egan, Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University in Perth)
In several cultures, however, perfectionism is seen as a positive trait. To tell people that they are perfectionists is almost a compliment.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the famous soccer player, on the other hand, says that he strives for excellence, not perfection:
‘I am not a perfectionist, but I like to feel that things are done well’ — (Cristiano Ronaldo)
Finally, according to Dr. Andrew Hill, whose research focuses on the consequences of perfectionism for athletes,
“Perfectionism isn’t a behavior. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” — (Dr. Andrew Hill)
How to Overcome Perfectionism
From a secular research perspective, if we recognize that we have perfectionist tendencies, the advise is to start by accepting our perfectionism as a normal problem, rather than criticizing ourselves. It’s important to learn to live with our imperfections and recognize that perfection – in the sense of complete absence of mistakes – is an unreachable goal. Mistakes are how we learn, and perfectionism doesn’t help to improve.
We are also invited to relax our standards, lower the bar, and begin establishing more realistic goals. Another suggestion is to learn to praise ourselves or adopt a positive attitude and use words of affirmation such as, “I do the best I can”.
However, if we include a spiritual perspective to the problem of overcoming perfectionism and substitute it with a healthy striving for improvement, we may obtain additional support.
President Russell M. Nelson reminds us that,
In this life, certain actions can be perfected. A baseball pitcher can throw a no-hit, no-run ball game. A surgeon can perform an operation without an error. A musician can render a selection without a mistake.
Scriptures have described Noah, Seth, and Job as perfect men. No doubt the same term might apply to a large number of faithful disciples in various dispensations….
“This does not mean that these people never made mistakes or never had need of correction. The process of perfection includes challenges to overcome and steps to repentance that may be very painful.” — (President Russell M. Nelson)
Ultimate perfection, however, cannot be really achieved in this this life,
“The moment he (Jesus) uttered the words “even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” he raised our sights beyond the bounds of mortality. Our Heavenly Father has eternal perfection. This very fact merits a much broader perspective.”
“In Matt. 5:48, the term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means “complete.” Teleios is an adjective derived from the noun telos, which means “end.” The infinitive form of the verb is teleiono, which means “to reach a distant end, to be fully developed, to consummate, or to finish.” Please note that the word does not imply “freedom from error”; it implies “achieving a distant objective.”
“The perfection that the Savior envisions for us is much more than errorless performance. It is the eternal expectation as expressed by the Lord in his great intercessory prayer to his Father—that we might be made perfect and be able to dwell with them in the eternities ahead.” — (President Russell M. Nelson)
However, we cannot reach this objective alone, but we need the atonement of Christ, who fulfilled the long-awaited purpose for which he had come to the earth.
“His concluding words upon Calvary’s cross referred to the culmination of his assignment—to atone for all humankind. Then he said, “It is finished.” Not surprisingly, the Greek word from which finished was derived is teleios.” — (President Russell M. Nelson)
We cannot reach eternal perfection alone, and we cannot even obtain mortal perfection in all that we do in this life, without the help of the Savior.
Perfectionism will not do it, but sincere and humble striving, with the help of the Savior’s grace, that comes to us through His Atonement, may eventually help us reach true perfection,
“…that consists in gaining eternal life—the kind of life that God lives.” — (President Russell M. Nelson)