Do you always want to get it exactly right and feel frustrated or upset when you don’t? Do you agonize over details? Are you determined to avoid mistakes at any cost? Do you beat yourself up when you make them?
These are indications that you may be a perfectionist. Certainly, being conscientious, caring about details and wanting to do things properly are positive qualities. At the same time, it’s important to remember that making mistakes and overcoming them are necessary and healthy parts of growing and learning.
A high level of perfectionism can have adverse effects both on someone’s physical and mental health because of the constant stress of unrealistically high expectations and the negative self-perception that comes with not being able to achieve these. A body of research links perfectionist tendencies to depression, anxiety, self-harm, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, hoarding, suicidal ideation and other mental health conditions as well as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
As Andrew Hill, a professor at York St. John University explains in a recent study published by the American Psychological Association: “Working hard, being committed, diligent, and so on – these are all desirable features. But for a perfectionist, those are really a symptom, or a side product, of what perfectionism is. Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.”
For perfectionists, performance is intertwined with their sense of self. When they don’t succeed, they don’t just feel disappointed about how they did. Their critical inner voice tells them that they are a failure.
Hill’s study shows that over the last few decades there has been a significant increase in toxic perfectionism in young people especially. The research which included 40,000 U.S., U.K. and Canadian undergraduate students, found a 33 percent increase in perfectionism among young people between 1989-2016.
Heightened competition in schools and the marketplace as well as growing dependence on technology and time spent on social media all contribute to this unhealthy trend.
If you struggle with the stress of the impossibly high standards that you set for yourself, there are some techniques you can use:
- Think Big – Don’t get stuck on the details. Practice looking at the bigger picture. How is what you are working on be connected to the things you care most about. Remember some things are worth doing even if you make a mistake or fail.
- Think Small – Shift your attention away from difficulty or failure. Instead try to notice the smallest parts of your work or task that you enjoy the most. Practice gratitude for getting to do even the smallest things only you can notice you enjoy.
- Set realistic standards for yourself – Learn to become comfortable with good enough.
- Be kind to yourself – Pretend you are talking to a friend. Would you ever be as critical of them – no matter how many mistakes they make – as you are of yourself?
- Limit the amount of time you have to work on a task. Finish it and move on.
When perfectionism becomes toxic, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. I’m here to help you evaluate therapeutic approaches that may work well for you. Call me at (303) 542-0180 for a free 10-minute consultation.