The curse of perfectionism is one that many millennial women battle with on a daily basis – but what is it doing to our mental health? Here, we explore the impact of perfectionism, and look at ways to loosen the grip it has on our lives.
I have always been a perfectionist. It’s part of my DNA – no matter where I am, who I’m with or what I’m doing, if it’s not perfect, I’m not happy.
It’s definitely not as bad as it used to be – as I’ve grown up, it’s become a lot easier to recognise and resist it – but when I’m feeling tired, upset or frustrated, it’s not long before that familiar feeling of anxiety and stress will rear its ugly head.
There’s a reason why so many psychologists and self-help books refer to perfectionism as a curse. While at first, it might feel like a friend who helps you to “be your best” and “achieve your goals”, it quickly becomes your worst enemy. When you put pressure on yourself to do everything right, you become highly self-critical of everything you do.
If I was to ask a room full of women whether or not they were perfectionists, chances are I’d see a lot of hands in the air compared to if I asked a roomful of men. For many women, perfectionism has evolved far beyond a personality quirk – it’s a philosophy that guides our everyday lives.
Thanks to the persistent nature of social media and the beauty standards it often perpetuates, we’re constantly reminded of all the things we don’t have quite right, whether that’s our social lives, family lives, career or general life admin. And the result is a burning need to have it all.
“Anyone can be a perfectionist, regardless of gender. However, due to added pressures many women receive growing up, there can be an extra level of self-doubt,” explains Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy.
She continues: “This can cause women to second guess themselves more – needing everything to be ‘perfect’ before putting themselves out there e.g. handing in an assignment or sharing a different viewpoint.”
The problem at the centre of all of this is that perfection doesn’t actually exist. It may sound highly stereotypical to say, but it’s the truth: there is not one person on this earth who lives a completely “perfect” life, no matter what your social media feed may portray.
And spending our time chasing a standard that doesn’t exist can take a massive toll on our mental health. According to Dr Touroni, in extreme cases the desire for perfection can lead to “anxiety, depression and ultimately, burnout”.
“It’s only natural that we want to give our best, and striving for betterment is, of course, a positive thing,” Dr Touroni explains.
“However, not when it comes at the expense of our health. And this is where perfectionism tips into becoming something that is detrimental. Perfectionism creates an exhaustingly high standard that is impossible to achieve.
“The reality of life is that most things aren’t perfect, and trying to make them that way is going to burnout our resources – both physically and psychologically.”
What is perfectionism?
“Perfectionism is a coping mechanism, usually learnt from childhood,” Dr Touroni explains. “Perfectionists misinterpret their value as being based on external factors, as opposed to understanding that they are valuable simply for being themselves.”
In this way then, perfectionism is fuelled by a need for external validation. Defined as the approval and acceptance we receive from others; external validation can be healthy – to a certain extent. However, when we rely on it to get us through the day and measure our worth, we put our self-esteem and confidence levels in the hands of the people around us.
So how is this need for external validation learnt? According to Dr Touroni, it’s got something to do with the messages we’re sent during childhood.
“If you grew up with parents who were workaholics you might end up feeling a pressure to live up to their own success,” Dr Touroni points out. “It can also happen if you had a pushy or overly-involved parent. If you only received connection and praise when you achieved something, then you might begin to believe that these are things that need to be ‘earned’.”
How can perfectionism affect our mental health?
“At the heart of most perfectionists is a deep fear of disapproval, of not being ‘good enough’,” Dr Touroni explains.
In this way, perfectionism can exacerbate feelings of insecurity and self-doubt because it drives us to do anything we can to be “good enough” and live up to the harsh expectations we set ourselves.
According to Touroni, there are four main ways perfectionism can affect our mental health:
Difficulties in relationships – “A heavy focus on success and achievement can take its toll on relationships. If you’re a perfectionist, you might also find it difficult to stay ‘present’ which can make it difficult to form authentic connections.”
Feeling ‘empty’ – “A life based on external factors alone is likely to leave someone feeling empty or with a sense that there’s something missing.”
Anxiety – “When we’re constantly projecting into the future thinking about what we can achieve next, we’re likely to be left with a sense that there’s never enough time in the day.”
Overworking – “The drive to succeed is so strong that you’d rather run yourself into the ground that run the risk of failure.”
How to be less of a perfectionist
Perfectionism is a tricky behaviour to get under control – especially when it’s controlled your life for such a long time. It also doesn’t help that, as Dr Touroni explains, “in our always-on culture, perfectionism has become one of our most accepted addictions”.
The first step to quieting our inner perfectionist is removing or avoiding the things that trigger us: and that includes cutting down our time on social media.
Dr Touroni also suggests seeking professional help to help you unpick and overcome your unhealthy thought patterns: “Therapy is a good place to start to unravel and challenge these belief systems and understand the ways in which your perfectionism might be holding you back,” she says.
To limit your reliance on external validation, it’s also a good idea to practice positive reinforcement and positive self-talk, to remind yourself that perfect isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.
“Many of us have an inner voice that tends to be quite negative, telling us that we are stupid when we have made a mistake, and so on,” Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic, previously told Stylist. “We need to nurture an inner voice that praises us when we do well, and that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than dismissing us as stupid.”
Spelman also agrees that therapy can be a useful tool in unpicking negative behaviour patterns: “Sometimes a few sessions of therapy can help people to start learning how to have a more positive relationship with themselves – and there are various techniques that can be incorporated into our daily lives to help in this area, including mindfulness meditation and the use of positive affirmations.”