Ditching Perfectionism: Embracing Imperfection in a World Striving for Flawlessness

Perfectionism is rife in today’s culture.  We cannot seem to escape the constant reminders that perfection is the goal: from people on television organising their cupboards with intricate precision, to flawlessly curated posts on your social media feed. Within our society, the word perfectionist is often used as a compliment. We see perfectionists as hardworking and possessing high attention to detail, qualities many of us are also striving for. 

Research shows that people are more perfectionistic in today’s society than they were thirty years ago. As many as two in five children and teenagers suffer ‘maladaptive’ or ‘unhealthy’ perfectionism. Unhealthy perfectionists hold excessively high standards for themselves, tying their self-worth to their achievements. They often go to great lengths to avoid any hint of failure and are often incredibly self-critical. 

Whilst rarely depicted in the media, unhealthy perfectionists face a range of risks: low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, stress and burnout. In clinical practice, we often work with perfectionists who may appear lazy and unmotivated to others. In reality, their intense fear of failure is so deep-rooted and pervasive that they struggle to start and finish even the most basic of tasks. 

Many adults grappling with perfectionism have faced adversity in childhood. Some may have grown up in environments where there was an excessive focus on academic achievement either within their home or school. Children identified as gifted and talented are particularly susceptible to unhealthy perfectionism as their academic achievements often become an overemphasised and overshadowing part of their identity. Individuals who have endured complex trauma during their formative years may also develop perfectionism as a way of coping with a poor sense of self-worth. 

Here are some tips to help you overcome perfectionistic tendencies: 

  1. Reflect on the unrealistic rules and internal standards that you have set yourself. Create a list of new realistic rules. 
    For example, ‘I must get an A on my exam’ might change to ‘I must put in a good effort for my exam but not at the expense of my life’.  
  2. Figure out the unhealthy perfectionism coping strategies  you have developed. 
    Do you tend to work through tasks really slowly? Do you have a habit of putting things off? Do you avoid taking up challenges? Once you have figured out your unhelpful ways of coping, develop a list of anti-perfectionism behaviours to combat these.  
  3. Aim to instil balance in your life. Schedule breaks and focus on building up other areas of life such as family and friends. 
  4. Start a self-compassion practice.  One of my favourite exercises is known as a self-compassion break. When you make a mistake, place your hand on your heart, slow down your breath, and repeat some compassionate phrases of support such as ‘May I forgive myself, may I be kind to myself, may I find peace in my heart’. 
  5. If you or your loved one continues to experience problems, please consult with your GP about whether counselling is needed. 

Written by Dr Anna McKinnon and Rebecca Cook 

References 

Curran, T. & Hill, A.P. (2017).  Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145, 410-429.