The Dangers of Perfectionism

Lately, I have been noticing a theme of perfectionism in several of my clients. Perfectionism can disguise itself as many things and attempts to simultaneously keep us looking good while also prohibiting anyone from ever believing that we may need support. 

Thomas Curran, a social psychologist from the UK presented research he did regarding perfectionism and discusses the danger it can pose in his TED talk. He noted the disconnect from what society says, “perfectionism is what makes you successful” and what research has shown, “it leads instead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns.” 

He discusses a drastic rise in the focus on materialistic goods and money spent towards maintaining a certain type of image since the 1980’s. This is illustrated by the increase in the amount of money being borrowed and the “visual culture” created by social media and other online platforms.

The following messages and ideas have been communicated over time producing an inevitable internal connection between our wealth, status, image, and our own personal value:

  • Hard work always pays off. 
  • We’re captains of our own destiny.
  • Nothing is out of reach for those who want it bad enough.

Curran discusses how perfectionism becomes measured by performance as our society is continuously sorted into schools, classes, and standardized tests. Students become conditioned to define themselves based on grades and percentiles and feeding into insecurities. This magnifies their imperfection and increases their need to perform better each time to avoid looking like a failure. Over time, this no longer creates a desire to strive for excellence, but to ultimately perfect an imperfect self in order to be worth anything.

These perfectionistic tentacles reach deeper and deeper as one’s self-worth and value becomes defined by performance and perfection leading to cycles of self-defeat. 

Curran’s research isolated data from college students using a 1980’s self-report measure of perfectionism which categorizes perfectionism into 3 different categories:  

  1. Self-Oriented perfectionism: “I strive to be as perfect as I can be” 
  2. Socially-Prescribed perfectionism: “The sense that the social environment is too demanding” 
  3. Other-Oriented perfectionism: “Unrealistic standards of other people” 

After accumulating three years of data, the results showed that all three of the categories have increased over time but that the 2nd category has increased the most. This category is the most dangerous and has been largely tied to clinical mental illness. It produces feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Curran challenges everyone to contemplate how we are structuring society in regards to competition, “the American dream,” beauty, fame, and other faulty structures. He encourages self-compassion towards ourselves and others when things are not going well. He also proposes the idea of parents becoming more unconditionally supportive when their child tries and fails and encourages parents to resist the urge to be a “helicopter parent.” 

Overall, no one is flawless and if we want to help young people escape perfectionism, “then we have to teach them that in a chaotic world, life will often defeat us but that failure is not weakness. If we want those around us to enjoy mental, emotional, and psychological health — we have to invite them to celebrate the beauty of imperfection as a normal and natural part of life.”

Let’s choose to fully embrace self-compassion & grace for ourselves and those around us and run from perfectionism and the dangers it can create. 

Written by: Betty Gebhardt