The Effects of Unattainable Perfectionism

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“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” ~ Brene Brown

Perfectionism is defined as the need to appear to be perfect or to obtain perfection. It is, of course, an impossibility in reality.

In today’s fast-paced, high-achieving society, perfectionism is often viewed as a positive trait that enhances the likelihood of success. However, there is a significant difference between striving for excellence and accepting nothing short of perfection.

The demand for perfection can lead to negative outcomes such as procrastination, a lack of creativity, challenge avoidance, toxic comparison, and black and white thinking.

Perfectionists often experience low self-esteem and feelings of failure, shame, and unworthiness when they attempt to reach the lofty goals they set for themselves. Mental health issues are prevalent among this group, with eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and self-injurious behavior being the most common.

In their pursuit of unattainable perfection, perfectionists focus relentlessly on avoiding failure and do not recognize their value because they believe that others’ affection and approval are solely dependent on their success. This results in a perpetuating cycle of negative orientation.

What Causes Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is often a learned behavior adopted from familial experiences such as perfectionist traits in a primary caregiver.

People with perfectionism frequently have a low sense of self-worth and experience intense internal pressures which causes them to seek validation through achievements for themselves or others.

High over-achievers often experience pressure to live up to their previous achievements, which exacerbates perfectionistic tendencies. Academic pressures often drive children and adolescents to be over-achievers as well as to have an intense drive to succeed in activities such as sports, hobbies, and social groups. If young people are praised for their over-achieving accomplishments, they are likely going to experience this enduring pressure as they grow up.

Many factors can contribute to the development of perfectionism, including:

  • Fear of disapproval
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Mental health issues like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Caregivers who exhibit perfectionistic behavior
  • Caregivers who disapprove if the child’s efforts do not result in perfection or the desired goal
  • An insecure early attachment

Perfectionism and Everyday Life

Perfectionism can impact all areas of an individual’s life. Perfectionist behaviors will often impede an individual’s ability to fulfill tasks and goals as they are likely to procrastinate and experience strong feelings of failure and unworthiness.

The tendencies may start in one area of life, for example as a young child in school, then infiltrate all other areas of a person’s life, rendering them powerless in the face of mounting pressure and anxiety.

The most frequent areas perfectionism is exhibited include:

  • School
  • Workplace
  • Romantic relationships and friendships
  • Physical activity
  • House / Garden / Immediate environment
  • Hygiene and health
  • Physical appearance

Symptoms of Perfectionism

Perfectionists set unattainable goals, are highly critical of themselves and others, and are quick to find fault.

You may be experiencing perfectionism if you:

  • Suffer from procrastination regularly, such as starting a task due to fear that you will not complete it perfectly
  • Are overly goal oriented
  • Take an excessive amount of time to complete a task
  • Struggle to relax or indulge in self-care
  • Have difficulty sharing thoughts and feelings
  • Experience feelings of unworthiness and failure
  • Exhibit controlling attitudes in both personal and professional relationships
  • Oscillate between obsessive attention to goals and apathy

It is normal for everyone to engage in perfectionist tendencies in certain areas of their lives or at particular points in time. However, “full-time” perfectionists will become burnt out by the constant need to achieve and have their efforts and accomplishments recognized.

The Types of Perfectionism

There are three distinct key types of perfectionism. While these types share traits, characteristics, and behaviors, their outcomes and motives vary.

  • Personal standards perfectionism: This is typically considered the least harmful of the three types. This individual will be motivated by the high standards they set but are unlikely to experience stress, anxiety or burn-out as a result.
  • Self-critical perfectionism: Rather than feeling motivated by their high standards, this type is more likely to experience fear and procrastination. This results in negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, distress, avoidance, frustration, and self-condemnation. 
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism: This is most commonly experienced by those in stressful and demanding jobs, such as medical professionals and lawyers. The requirement to be precise and accurate at all times has led to these groups experiencing greater instances of depression, self-harm, suicide, and overwhelm than in other professions. This type also includes anyone who is expected by an external party such as a parent or societal ideal to meet high standards.

Perfectionism and Mental Health

A renowned 2019 UK study by Thomas Curran, a lecturer in the Department for Health at the University of Bath, and Andrew P. Hill of York St. John University  demonstrated that socially prescribed perfectionism is the “most debilitating” of the three types:

Individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval. ~ Thomas Curran[1]

Extensive research discovered that perfectionism negatively impacts our mental health, with the most common disorders among this group including eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical depression, anxiety, self-injurious behavior, and premature death.

Another study found that over half of those who died by suicide had exceedingly high expectations for themselves and were characterized by their loved ones as “perfectionists.” [2]

Curran and Hill’s expansive study found that between 1989–2016, the proportion of American, Canadian, and British people who displayed traits of perfectionism increased by 33%.[3]

Perfectionism has also been attributed to increased risks of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.[4]

Understanding Atelophobia

Perfectionism itself is not a mental health disorder but, as discussed, the negative consequences of this mindset can lead to the development of various disorders.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 12.5% of Americans will experience a specific phobia at some point in their lives.[5] Phobias cause an intense feeling of fear, threat, and danger, even if in reality the environment is safe.

Atelophobia is an extreme version of perfectionism. It is classed as a phobia of being imperfect or of making a mistake.

Atelophobia causes sufferers immense distress and anxiety as they are unable to bounce back after a failure, perceived or real.

Conclusion

Perfectionists find it especially challenging to ask for help. However, it is essential that you seek compassionate therapeutic support in order to let go of the perfectionist mindset and live a free, full, and joyful life.

Therapy will guide you or your loved one into new ways of approaching goals and achievements.  Together they will reframe feelings of low self-worth, failure, and the need for approval into positive affirmation.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with perfectionism, please do not suffer alone. Please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


Sources:

[1] Curran, Thomas, and Andrew P. Hill. “Perfectionism is Increasing over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016.”. Psychological Bulletin, vol 145, no. 4, 2019, pp. 410-429. American Psychological Association (APA), https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138. Accessed 16 Feb 2022.

[2] “Alaska Suicide Follow-Back Study Final Report”. Dhss.Alaska.Gov, 2022, https://dhss.alaska.gov/SuicidePrevention/Documents/pdfs_sspc/sspcfollowback2-07.pdf.

[3] Curran, Thomas, and Andrew P. Hill. “Perfectionism is Increasing over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016.”. Psychological Bulletin, vol 145, no. 4, 2019, pp. 410-429. American Psychological Association (APA), https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138. Accessed 16 Feb 2022.

[4] Stoeber, Joachim. The Psychology Of Perfectionism. 2017.

[5] “Specific Phobia”. National Institute Of Mental Health (NIMH), 2022, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/specific-phobia.

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