I recall being told that when asked the standard interview question, “what is your greatest weakness”, the perfect answer is, “I’m a perfectionist”, The intended implication is to suggest that your standards so high that, undoubtedly, any business would be smart to hire you.
Contrary to this common belief, perfectionism and being a perfectionist, leaves one vulnerable to compromised mental health. Many of the numerous negative effects of perfectionism are overlooked due to the perceived benefits and rewards that come as the perceived result of holding high standards. Perfectionists themselves find it extremely hard to abandon these tendencies. Instead, they continue to pursue the perfect experience, often falling short, and then privately berate themselves as failures.
Perfectionism is far from perfect. This is particularly concerning for teens and young adults in our society.
The dark underbelly of perfectionism
Teenagers today are studying in a highly competitive academic world that emphasises consistent achievement and compares students with their peers. For most, the pressure of academic standards is motivating. However, for those with a high degree of perfectionism, the pressure can lead to extremes of procrastination or an extraordinary effort that may not be justified. Due to a constant fear of failure, perfectionists take an all-or-nothing approach, which can result in paralysis, as an avoidance strategy. This is not uncommon, and remains misunderstood.
Due to an ‘All-or-Nothing’ mindset, perfectionists are unable to realise a middle-ground between two extremes — be perfect or quit. Driven by a fear of failure, the potential risk of mistakes can freeze them in their tracks.
I sometimes meet adults, whom I refer to as 96ers, who would regularly score more than 90% in exams, who spend the time thinking about the 4-10 marks they DIDN’T get rather than those that they did. This practice reinforces a belief that they are not good enough.
Express not Suppress
For many, perfectionism can be translated not only into their work and aspirations, but also into the way in which they handle emotions. Within the spectrum of human limitations, perfectionists reject typical emotional reality as a form a failure, under the illusion that an unbroken chain of positive feelings is possible.
Furthermore, although uncommon, some perfectionists consider the idea of tormented life, a tortured soul and a wronged victim, as the ideal of the misunderstood perfectionist. Whether a perfectionist or not, there are many people who are taught that it is improper to display emotions. Perfectionism forces suppression and denies individuals the permission to acknowledge and experience ‘undesirable’ emotions.
The suppression of depressive thoughts is associated with a worsening of depressive symptoms, as it intensifies the emotions by keeping them fresh and active. This is why it is important to accept and release our built-up feelings, opening us to emotional growth and healthy grieving.
Within a relationship, especially amongst millennials, the media has become a third-party pressure for #RelationshipGoals. The added forces those with perfectionist tendencies to demand perfection from themselves, their partner, displayed through their social media profile. Perfectionists tend to put so much pressure on themselves and their partner to be ‘perfect’ that they end up far from it. The demands that they put on themselves are often reflected on their partners, which lead to high expectations. As a result, perfectionists often feel disappointed, unsatisfied and resentful in relationships – a potential recipe for disaster – pressuring their partners with constant reminders of inadequacy.
Why is perfectionism difficult to abandon?
Nobody likes to fail, but it is the ability to recognise, understand and accept the reality of failure that allows you to digest it. However, for a perfectionist, the rejection of reality places them in a fantasy world where mistakes can be avoided and success is the only destination. This mindset restricts their desire to change, emphasising the apparent rewards and successes at the end of the tunnel, which are driven by the unforgiving fear of failure and of disappointing others. Perfectionists cannot see the negative effects as clearly as the rewards, which leads them to cling to their standards and reject compromise.
Further detrimental effects of perfectionism, such as, depression, anxiety and eating disorders, highlight the importance of realising and understanding perfectionism. If you recogniseyourself, I urge you to take action so that you can start making changes to become more self-accepting and begin to enjoy the journey.
If you would like to break free from your perfectionism prison you might like to consider visiting a counsellor. In counselling the thoughts associated with being perfect can be unpacked and assessed. Understanding the roots of your perfectionism, and the behaviours and thoughts that help you to maintain a perfectionistic persona, can help you break free from self-judgement and self-loathing that accompanies the perpetual pursuit of perfection.
If you don’t feel ready, just yet, to address your perfectionist tendencies, consider reading books on this topic. I personally recommend Brené Brown’s The gifts of imperfection, orTal Ben-Shahar’s The pursuit of perfect. Enjoy your journey back from impossibly high standards, embrace today and accept yourself as you are.
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