What does perfectionism mean to you?
Maybe you’ve joked that your friend’s chip-free nails, fabulously blow-dried hair and impeccably ironed clothes are down to her being “such a perfectionist”.
You might have even used the word as a humble-brag answer in an interview. We’ve all played up our ‘perfectionism’ when asked our weaknesses by a potential employer.
However, the reality of perfectionism can be much more serious than anecdotal banter would have us believe.
By definition, a perfectionist is someone who “refuses to accept any standard short of perfection”.
But when we actually attempt to live up to these standards, they can feel impossible to achieve. And new research suggests that this can be severely damaging to our mental health.
The eye-opening study, conducted by psychologists at the University of Western Ontario, suggests that perfectionism can be a large contributing factor to suicide.
Researchers spoke to the friends and family of those who had committed suicide to gain an insight into the personality traits of their deceased loved ones.
Suicide is a delicate and complex subject, and the reasons behind it cannot be easily or fully quantified. However, according to the interviews conducted as part of this study, most people who had been close to suicide victims agreed that they had been perfectionists.
In fact, 56% of interviewees said that those who had passed away felt a “perceived external pressure to be perfect”.
“Self-generated and socially based pressures to be perfect are part of the premorbid personality of people prone to suicide ideation and attempts,” the study’s authors explain.
These findings sound scary and severe. But perfectionism also has well-documented links to other forms of mental illness, such as anxiety.
Kathariya Mokrue PhD, writing for the Huffington Post, explains that the need to be perfect can set mental health up for a fall. If we aim for standards that can never be met, we are then forced into overdrive when we attempt to achieve them.
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“Perfectionism – the need to avoid errors, mistakes, criticism, or disappointment from others – can lead to excessive anxiety and worry, insomnia, physical ailments, inability to relax and enjoy diversions, neglect in self-care, and interpersonal relationship problems,” she says.
However, there are practical steps you can take if your perfectionist streak is making things difficult; Mokrue works with clients suffering from perfectionism-linked anxiety disorders, and recommends setting goals based on time limits, instead of emotional satisfaction.
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“When working to complete a task, set a timer (an ‘external thermometer’) rather than using your feelings as a gauge for when you have done enough,” says Mokrue. “If it can be done reasonably in two hours, give yourself two hours to finish.”
Once the timer has run out, you should “stop working regardless of how you feel. Resist the urge to go back and try to make it perfect.”
If you’re still struggling to judge whether your work is completed to an acceptable level, she suggests using the trusted opinion of a “peer” or “colleague” to read it through.
Perfectionism can sometimes be a useful trait. However, if you feel like that your mental health is under strain or you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, experts advise that you seek help immediately from a friend or family member and visit your GP to explore the number of treatments available.
You can find out more information through the Samaritans website.