The Dangers of Perfectionism — and 5 Ways to Overcome It.
What is perfectionism?
The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as “the tendency to demand of others or oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, over what is required by the situation.” Like an expressionist painting, perfectionism looks tidy and serene from afar. The desire to seek perfection masquerades as a perfectly harmless attempt at being successful — and, in cases of adaptive perfectionism, that’s true.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with a drive to improve that’s balanced with an understanding of when to let go. But when perfectionism crosses over from adaptive to maladaptive, it’s much more multifaceted and complex. And, in those maladaptive cases, far more dangerous than we’ve been led to believe by corporate America.
The roots of perfectionism run deep into our psyches, according to Dr. Andrew P. Hill, a leading researcher on perfectionism at York St. John University in the United Kingdom. “Perfectionism isn’t a behavior. It’s a way of thinking about yourself,” Dr. Hill says.
If the story I shared above about launching this site is any indication, he’s spot on. What we see as a perfect shell on the outside is just the tip of an iceberg floating in a deep ocean of insecurity, anxiety, shame — and, sometimes, avoidance of all of the above. At its core, perfectionism is the desire to have things be just right to gain approval, status, or validation. It’s not so much about the outcome of perfection as it is about the drive and desire to make things perfect in the first place.
In that regard, perfectionism is a mindset that can trap you into thinking things must be a sure way to belong. And that you’re a failure if you don’t live up to those standards. As you’ll see next, this way of looking at the world falls into several discrete categories, and its impacts are pervasive.
What are the different types of perfectionism?
There are three main types of perfectionism, which Dr. Thomas Curran of the University of Bath in the United Kingdom highlights in his 2018 TEDMED talk. They are defined as follows:
- Self-oriented perfectionism: Excessively high personal expectations
- Socially prescribed perfectionism: Excessively high social expectations
- Other-oriented perfectionism: Excessively high expectations of others
There are also two essential sub-dimensions of perfectionism, which are:
- Excellence-seeking perfectionism: A fixation with — and demand for — excessively high expectations to be met
- Failure-avoiding perfectionism: An obsession with — and aversion to — failure
People who experience perfectionism can exhibit one or multiple types and one or both sub-dimensions.
How common is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is widespread, affecting nearly one or two in five young people (depending on the study and the age range). And it’s on the rise.
All three types of perfectionism have increased over time, but socially prescribed perfectionism, which is most highly correlated to severe mental health conditions, has increased the most. From 1989 to 2017, the number of young people who reported clinically relevant levels of socially prescribed perfectionism rose from 9% to 18%, doubling in less than 30 years.
Dr. Hill and Dr. Curran believe the uptick is a result of several cultural forces, including the encouragement of individualistic tendencies and the emphasis on meritocracy, as well as the rise of comparisons through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and more.
The connection between perfectionism and mental health
In a Q&A with Goop, Dr. Curran says, “Perfection is an impossible outcome and a core vulnerability to serious mental illness. Those who become preoccupied with it set themselves up for failure and psychological turmoil.” The research backs him up.
Perfectionism, while not a discrete mental health condition of its own, has been linked to anxiety and depression, increased levels of burnout, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and even suicide. “There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you will suffer,” says Sarah Egan, a researcher on perfectionism at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
The bad news is that perfectionism is a precarious risk factor for severe mental and behavioral issues. The good news is that there are specific steps you can take to overcome perfectionism. And that’s exactly what I outline below.
5 Ways to Overcome Perfectionism
1. Recognize when your perfectionism is holding you back
As you’ve already seen, not all forms of perfectionism are destructive. Striving to do your best is healthy and helpful in some circumstances and situations. It’s when you keep revisiting and tweaking, and fixating despite diminishing returns that the pursuit of perfection becomes problematic. Perfectionism becomes maladaptive when your expectations become more important than the reality of the situation you’re in.
Brené Brown touches on this in her second book, The Gifts of Imperfection, when she writes, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life.”
Learn to recognize when these impulses arise within you. Do your best to take a step back and ask yourself some of these questions:
- Do I need to take a break and come back to this with a fresh set of eyes?
- Am I striving for progress or perfection?
- Are my expectations realistic?
- Will the extra effort make a meaningful difference here?
- Is this good enough?
2. Practice self-compassion
Perfectionism can be unbearable because of the constant condemnation directed at oneself or another. All of that negative energy can weigh on you over time and breed more negativity. But fear not: Self-compassion can rescue you from your self-criticism. Start with the practice of positive, realistic statements or small affirmations that reorient your energy.
These mantras will help remind you that you’re just another human doing the best you can with what you’ve been given. They’ll also reframe your internal narrative from one that’s steeped in disapproval to one that’s rich in reassurance. Here are some examples of positive, realistic statements:
- Everybody makes mistakes.
- No one is perfect.
- I’m trying my best, and that’s enough.
- I can tackle this little by little and one step at a time.
Try incorporating these into your everyday first thing in the morning or immediately before bed and see what a difference a little perspective can make in your life.
3. Address the root cause
We’ve already established that perfectionism is a mindset. But how do you address and begin to shift that mindset? As Drake Baer writes for Thrive Global, “Once you understand the perfectionism’s function — a way of seeking security, love, self-worth — you can understand the deeper emotional machinery underlying a behavior.”
Recognizing your need for emotional safety can be a potent tool in beating your perfectionism. Instead of tinkering with things on the outside and treating the symptoms, you can get right to the heart of the matter just by shining a light on what’s going on internally. When you become aware of this feeling, you can begin the work of unpacking the limiting beliefs that got you there in the first place.
One of my favorite tools for challenging automatic negative thoughts is a line of questioning, which I also detail in my piece about how to cope with anxiety:
- What are the beliefs that are driving this behavior?
- When did it start?
- What do I know to be true?
- How does this thought make me feel?
- Is the opposite of the thought more likely?
Next time you start to feel that inkling to seek emotional safety, take a deep breath and employ the questions above to re-center yourself. Trust me; you’ll be glad you did.
4. Revisit your expectations
In our age of constant comparison, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking everyone else is living a perfect life, and here you are, just struggling to make ends meet. When these thoughts arise, acknowledge the compulsion to perfect your own life and choose to revisit your expectations before you act on that compulsion. The reality is that your expectations of perfection make you feel so inadequate. So, do your best not to compare yourself with anyone else. Do things because you want to do them, not because of anyone’s expectations — most of all, your own. Do your best to strip things down to the bare essentials.
In the end, life rarely turns out as we expect it to. Three things ultimately define our short time here:
- Do I have the courage to show up?
- Do I have the willingness to let life unfold?
- Can I find comfort in not knowing?
If you can learn to push beyond your expectations to live in this uncertainty, you’ll be golden.
We’ve discussed what science says on perfectionism, but what does Inite have to do with it? What it does, is helps you structure ideas and thoughts by breaking things down and making notes. Does our model differ from the usual understanding of perfectionism? Definitely yes, because our game and app supports users mental state and helps improve quality of life. We help create ideas for fun as well as self-development, without enforcing overachievement and perfectionism. Inite motivates all users though a scientific approach and even allows them to monetize their thoughts and ideas!
Getting things done is an important skill to develop as well. Have you ever faced a situation: you’ve written a task in your diary, set a time, but never actually got it done. We help you to bring such occasions to a minimum. Inite helps you put ideas to practice. So you bring your productivity to a new level, but it will not turn into a time-consuming achievers race!
Develop your creative streak with Inite!
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