For generations people have associated perfectionism with successful/ high achieving behaviour. This quality is appreciated and considered to be a healthy motivator. However, research has proven that trying to be perfect is not the same as trying your best. Always striving to achieve perfection can take a toll on your self-esteem, confidence, relationships, career and life in general. This affects young people and adults similarly; especially the teenagers who are often pushed to be the best in academics, sports etc. perfectionism creates an obsession with success and leads to depression when set goals are not achieved. Eventually, this interferes with our ability to perform and even do our best.

Table of Contents:
Meaning of Perfectionist / Perfectionism
General Types of Perfectionism
Causes of Perfectionism
Symptoms of Perfectionism
Physical and Psychological Effects of Perfectionism
Prevention Measures to Avoid Turning into a Perfectionist
Cure of Perfectionism

Meaning of Perfectionist / Perfectionism

According to Thomas Curran and Andrew P Hill, perfectionism is “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluation”. In simpler words, it is the need to appear or be perfect. Generally, perfectionists have extremely high expectations of themselves, and even if they somehow manage to achieve them, they are still dissatisfied. In their eyes, what they do is never good enough.

General Types of Perfectionism

Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt- 2 psychologists who have dedicated decades to understanding perfectionist personality and behaviour- have categorized it into:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism: this makes people to be industrious and hold very high standards of performance. They have a harsh self-evaluation process and believe that this behaviour will lead to greater work productivity and success.
  2. Other oriented perfectionism: This leads to people holding others to very high standards. They are judgmental and overly critical of other’s ability to perform.
  3. Socially prescribed perfectionism: In​ this, people feel the urge to be perfect in everything they do. They are anxious about their performance, and their self-esteem is linked with achieving unrealistically high standards that others hold for them. They believe that they must be perfect in order for others to approve of them.

Socially prescribed perfectionism is described to be the most incapacitating of the three.

Causes of Perfectionism

The exact cause is not always clear in the case, and it is often an acquired trait; although recently, psychologists have started linking perfectionism with childhood trauma (actual or perceived) and its emotional consequences:

For example: If in a family with 2 children, the older sibling is smart, good-looking, good at academics and is always appreciated by everybody; the younger sibling learns that he/she needs to work extremely hard to get noticed and gain some affection. They believe that they don’t deserve it as they feel they are not good enough. They constantly feel the need to prove themselves.

Symptoms of Perfectionism

A desire to give your best or outdo yourself to achieve something is not bad. However, an irrational need to always be perfect in whatever you attempt can be toxic and self-destructive.

Some common traits noticed in perfectionists are:

  1. Procrastination:Due to their fear of not being able to do a job perfectly, they do not start it at all. This leads to unnecessary stress later on due to the piling up work as the deadlines get closer.
  1. Fear of failure:They are scared of failing in everything they try their hands on. Instead of getting excited about a new task or a new job, they are filled with dread.
  1. Pushed by fear:In contrast to high achievers who are pulled towards success by a desire to achieve their goals; perfectionists are rather pushed towards them by a fear of falling short or not delivering up to the expectation. In this process, they get overstressed and do not enjoy the experience.
  1. Unrealistic expectations:They set unreasonably high goals that are out of their reach and then work too hard on accomplishing them. This starts a toxic cycle of failures and lowering morality. They get frustrated every time there is laid-back.
  1. Craving approval:Perfectionists believe that people judge them and hence desire everyone’s approval the most. They focus more on what everyone says about their efforts rather than on the efforts themselves! This makes them less productive and adds unnecessary pressure.
  1. Judgmental of others:Perfectionists tend to tear other people down in order to feel good about themselves. They are constantly criticizing others, rectifying their work and providing unwelcome feedback.
  1. Obsessed with rules:In order to achieve their extremely unrealistic goals, they make rules and guidelines. They try to stick to them piously and make no exceptions—not even for their close ones.
  1. Disliking feedbacks:They fail to distinguish between constructive feedback aimed at helping them improve and cruel comments. They usually get defensive and tend to lash out at anyone sharing an opinion about their work.
  1. Excessively controlling:In order to make sure everything progressed exactly as they want, perfectionists tend to be bossy. They do not let their colleagues work independently and micro manage everything. If countered, they get upset and become a nightmare to work alongside.
meaning of perfectionist

Physical and Psychological Effects of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can affect our mental and physical health in drastic ways. According to the study published by Thomas Curran and Andrew P Hill, some of the common effects of perfectionism include:

  • Society prescribed perfectionism often leads to perfectionism anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies.​ This form of toxic perfectionism seems to hit the student population particularly strongly. According to a recent study, 30% of undergraduates experience symptoms of depression due to their over ambitions.
  • Clinical depression, eating disorders (anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa) and premature death have been linked with self-oriented perfectionism.
  • Self-oriented perfectionism also raises the risk of possible bipolar disorder in the future.
  • Studies have reported cases of early death in perfectionists suffering from any chronic physical illness because it is difficult for them to accept it.
  • Perfectionist behaviour invites enormous stress, and hence it paves the way for various lifestyle disorders like diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, etc.​

Prevention Measures to Avoid Turning into a Perfectionist

  • Set realistic goals.
  • Remain realistic about outcomes and include external factors.​   
  • Divide any seemingly impossible task into smaller fragments and focus on completing each fragment.
  • Focus all your attention on one activity at a time​  .
  • ​Accept that humans make mistakes and that no one is perfect.
  • Look upon mistakes as learning opportunities. Remember that as long as we are learning, we are definitely improving.
  • Write down the positive affirmations about yourself and place it in a place you can read them often.
  • ​ Be kind to yourself and others.

Cure of Perfectionism

As a part of perfectionism, people tend to hide their personal problems or believe they do not have any. This makes it rather difficult to overcome perfectionism. However, believed to be an acquired trait, perfectionism can be cured by therapies. The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale developed by Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt allows professionals to measure an individual’s perfectionism.

Various therapy options are available to treat perfectionism. These include:

  1. Cognitive behavioural therapy- This is the most common therapy used to address perfectionism. It uses evidence-based strategies to encourage flexibility in thinking and reduce bias. It used motivational strategies to make people realise that every human has flaws and that having flaws is acceptable.
  1. Family system therapy- It is based on the belief that a family functions as a close emotional unit and that individuals are inseparable from their relationships. This model is sometimes used to explain perfectionism and explain how it develops within a family and affects a person as an individual member of a family. It is a relatively new therapy method and is still under intense research.
  1. Hypnotherapy- This is the use of hypnosis to facilitate change in behaviour and emotions. Under hypnosis a person is more suggestible, and it is easier to understand their mind functioning and help them better. It is usually used to address the “all or nothing” nature associated with most perfectionists.

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