Before starting to write this article, I stared at my computer screen for around half an hour feeling overwhelmed by the countless open tabs in my browser, each of them showcasing a crucial piece of research that I absolutely had to include in this comprehensive feature.
Luckily, I’ve undergone enough therapy in my life to be able to recognize this paralyzing feeling for what it is: toxic perfectionism.
I know myself and how this process goes: I start by fabricating the expectation that this article has to be perfectly thorough and encompass everything that’s ever been written on perfectionism.
Then, I forget the fact that I have an upper limit of words for this article, a limited number of hours that I can work on it, and generally that I am bound by the limitations that are inherent to being human.
Soon enough, unrealistic expectations loom over me so heavily that I can’t get started at all, which, in turn, only fuels a harsh inner voice that berates me for procrastinating or makes me feel like an imposter for being a paid writer who doesn’t write.
Over the years, I’ve trained myself to recognize this pattern and break it at critical points, enabling me to deliver some form of work, not get fired, and feel relatively good about myself. For others, however, tackling the sabotaging feeling of perfectionism may prove more difficult.
In this (imperfect) Spotlight feature, we zoom in on perfectionism, how it affects our mental and physical health, and some of the things that we can do about it.
What exactly is perfectionism?
Experts tend to define perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” However, there are more nuances to this definition.
Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt are two leading authorities in the field of perfectionism, both of whom have studied this topic for decades. Flett is a professor in the Faculty of Health at York University in Ontario, Canada, and Hewitt is currently a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia (UBC), also in Canada.
Together, the two psychologists defined the three main facets of perfectionism in a landmark study they published almost 3 decades ago. They say that there is “self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism.”
The following video, from Prof. Hewitt’s Perfectionism and Psychopathology Lab at UBC, explains these three “flavors” of perfectionism and suggests ways in which we can prevent their harmful effects.
In socially prescribed perfectionism, “individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval.”
Anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are only some of the mental health problems that specialists have repeatedly linked with this form of perfectionism.
One older study, for example, found that over half of people who died by suicide were described by their loved ones as “perfectionists.” Another study found that more than 70 percent of young people who died by suicide were in the habit of creating “exceedingly high” expectations of themselves.
Toxic perfectionism seems to hit young people particularly hard. According to recent estimates, almost 30 percent of undergraduate students experience symptoms of depression, and perfectionism has been widely associated with these symptoms.
These trends have been rising over the past few decades, particularly in English-speaking cultures. Curran and Hill studied more than 40,000 American, Canadian, and British college students and found that in 1989–2016, the proportion of people who exhibited traits of perfectionism rose by up to 33 percent.
As Curran and Hill point out, “self-oriented perfectionism” — which occurs when “individuals attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluations” — is linked with clinical depression, eating disorders, and premature death among college students and young people.
Self-critical perfectionism is also said to raise the risk of bipolar disorder. Some studies suggest that it may explain why people with bipolar also experience anxiety.
However, the ills of perfectionism do not stop at mental health. Some studies have found that high blood pressure is more prevalent among perfectionistic people, and other researchers have even linked the trait with cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, when faced with physical illness, perfectionists have a harder time coping. One study found that the trait predicts early death among those who have diabetes, and research conducted by Prof. Flett and his colleagues found that people with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or who have had a heart attack have a much harder time recovering.
As Prof. Flett writes, “[A] link between perfectionism and serious illness is not surprising given that unrelenting perfectionism can be a recipe for chronic stress.”
Living with a harsh inner voice
Living with the internalized voice of perfectionism is not easy. Perfectionists will often have a harsh internal dialogue, in which their “inner critic” constantly tells them that they’re not good enough — no matter what they do or how hard they try.
Not only is having such a constant inner voice draining and exhausting, but, on top of that, perfectionists often criticize themselves for the fact that they are being self-critical, or feel that their constant efforts are, in themselves, further proof of their irredeemable imperfection.
For instance, Prof. Hewitt talks about one of his therapy clients: a university student who was living with depression and putting himself under the pressure of getting an A+ in a course. After working really hard, the student achieved his goal and got the highest grade.
However, as the professor recalls, “He proceeded to tell me that the A+ was just a demonstration of how much of a failure he was.” If he’d been perfect, the student reasoned, he wouldn’t have had to work so hard to achieve it.
Perfectionism often verges on self-abuse. “[Perfectionists] are hugely hard on themselves,” says Prof. Hewitt in another interview, “with a hatred that is breathtaking at times.”
He adds that their inner critic treats them as harshly as “a nasty adult” berating a small child.
How to counter the harms of perfectionism
Dealing with your inner critic can be hard, but there are a number of things you can do to silence that voice. A recent study led by Madeleine Ferrari, from the Australian Catholic University in Sydney, found that self-compassion can help protect against depression in people with perfectionistic tendencies.
“[S]elf-compassion,” explain Ferrari and her colleagues, “the practice of self-kindness, consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression for both adolescents and adults.”
You may think that self-compassion is something that you either have or you don’t, but Prof. Hewitt is hopeful that certain forms of psychotherapy can help people perceive their harsh self-beliefs and change them gently over time.
Other psychologists also insist that self-compassion can be taught. Our Spotlight features several therapeutic practices that have been shown to boost self-kindness.
“Mindful Self-Compassion […] Training” and yoga, for instance, have both been proven to help quell the self-criticizing inner voice. Clinical trials of the former have yielded promising results, with 8-week training courses boosting the participants’ levels of self-compassion by around 43 percent.
Finally, it might be helpful to simply take a moment and acknowledge the fact that whatever goals you set yourself out to achieve in life, it will be difficult. In other words, as the following video from the School of Life points out, try to “budget” for the difficulties and sacrifices that any achievement will entail.
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