Perfectionism is on the rise, and can particularly affect women. It’s time we learned to resist the pressure to be all things to all people.
It’s an old cliché, the kind of thing we’re now actively warned against saying in job interviews. When an interviewer asks what our worst trait is, we’re no longer supposed to say “I’m a perfectionist”; we’re supposed to be aware that it now sounds cheesy, overused and a little dishonest. But for many women, it’s probably the truth.
The pressure to be perfect is on the rise around the world, and some research has shown that women are especially prone to perfectionism. Having high standards for oneself is, generally speaking, a good thing: it’s what drives us to excel in our careers and refuse to accept bad relationships. But feeling as though we have to do everything flawlessly, all the time, in every realm of our lives – from work to romance to family to friends to fitness to fashion – can also leave us feeling burnt out, anxious and depressed.
In a new interview, Zendaya speaks eloquently about the trap of perfectionism.
“The one thing I struggle with is I sometimes get so afraid to make a mistake,” the Spider-Man star tells US Marie Claire. “Like, I want to be perfect, I want to make all the right decisions, and when I don’t, it stresses me out.”
Zendaya’s point about the link between perfectionism and decision-making is an important one. Choosing between different pathways can be extremely anxiety-inducing, and research into the “paradox of choice” has shown that human beings actually dislike being presented with too many options when making a decision. If we feel overwhelmed by choice, we tend to regret our decisions, obsess over the ones we rejected, or simply find it impossible to pick at all.
And the actor and musician is far from alone in feeling the pressure to be perfect. Research published in January this year showed that perfectionism has risen over the past few decades in the UK, Canada and the US, with today’s university students significantly more likely to be perfectionists than previous generations. Unlike prior generations, young adults today feel an intense “drive to be perfect in body, mind and career”, the study said.
Discussing their research in the Harvard Business Review, the authors of that study, Thomas Curran and Andrew P Hill, noted that there is growing evidence that the global rise in anxiety disorders and depression can be linked to the “excessive standards” that young adults hold for themselves.
Millennials, they observed, appear to have internalised “a pre-eminent contemporary myth that things, including themselves, should be perfect”.
Research has also found that girls and women are more likely to fall into the trap of perfectionism than boys and men. One US study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology found that a higher proportion of women suffered from feelings of inadequacy at home and at work, believing that they did not meet their own high standards when it came to family and professional commitments.
A survey by Girlguiding, meanwhile, has shown that a quarter of British girls aged seven to 10 feel the need to be perfect.
So how can we resist the pressure of perfectionism? According to Zendaya, she has learned to accept that sometimes, she’s going to make mistakes.
“I can’t allow myself to be scared of not always doing the right thing,” she says. “I will make mistakes in my career, but I can try my best to make the decisions that I can and learn from my mistakes. Like, ‘I’m about to kill it on this next go-round because now I know better.’” We think that’s pretty solid advice.
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