Is your perfectionism making you miserable?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been setting myself impossible tasks as a way to “test” my limitations, commitments and abilities.

When I returned to Australia aged nine (after living in Poland for six years) I wanted to learn English as quickly as possible to stop feeling like a joke, a failure who couldn’t even participate in “show and tell”. As a highschool student, grades below 90 per cent were unacceptable; at university, while it appeared that I’d grudgingly learnt to accept distinctions, secretly I seethed at my self-perceived incompetence.

Having goals is healthy, as long as achieving them doesn’t come at the cost of your happiness. Credit:iStock

And now, aged 33, I have finally come to a period of my life over which I have literally no control. I always suspected that pregnancy would be difficult: I have never been one to embrace going with the flow, and accepting that my mental and physical states will be at the whim of a tiny foetus for almost a year has not been an easy ride.

COVID-19 lockdowns have, unfortunately, only reinforced my perfectionism, and during last year’s long, bleak Melbourne winter, I thought the only way to get through it was to use the endless time to achieve my dreams of becoming a painter, an illustrator, a great essayist.

And while the second time round I’ve somewhat relaxed, it’s still difficult to face a long period of unstructured free time and be OK with just… squandering it.

It seems I’m not alone. Last year was marked by what University of New South Wales’ professor of educational psychology Andrew Martin calls “fairly outward demonstrations of coping really well” on social media.

“We saw a lot of people posting about their perfect sourdough and other polished versions of themselves taking advantage of the extra time in lockdown,” he says. “And even though we know rationally that it’s a polished version, we still internalise it and compare ourselves to that version.”

While Martin says this social media posturing of success has somewhat abated this year (which is not necessarily a good thing – it shows that people are struggling too much to even pretend) he says this type of perfectionism, called socially-prescribed perfectionism (i.e. holding beliefs that they need to be perfect in order to be socially accepted) has increased with the rise of social media platforms.

“We have seen this paradox during COVID: while people are showing that they are coping on social media, in private they aren’t, but because they see others who look like they’re learning Latin, reading poetry and raising perfect children while working, they are feeling like they should be doing better, too,” Martin says.

Trying to look successful has always existed, as has, to a degree, perfectionism. But what hasn’t always been around is the 24/7, real-time pressure on social media to look functional in every way.

“Research suggests that perfectionism has been on the steady increase over the last 20 to 30 years,” says Martin, pointing to a recent study looking at changes in perfectionism in more than 40,000 students from 1989 to 2016.

This was found to be consistent across the three most common types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism (holding unrealistic expectations of ourselves); the aforementioned socially-prescribed perfectionism (holding beliefs that we need to be perfect in order to be socially accepted), and other-oriented perfectionism (holding unrealistic expectations of others).

Dr Bruce Campbell, a clinical psychologist from the Centre for Clinical Interventions, says that the increase in perfectionism in the “last two to three decades is also likely to reflect changing social environments where competitiveness is valued, high achievers are increasingly recognised and rewarded, and parenting styles driven by anxiety have tended to become more controlling”.

“In addition, comparisons between people’s endeavours and achievements are easily accessible through the multitude of always available social media platforms,” he adds.

It’s easy to see how platforms like Instagram can pull anyone into a vortex of self-loathing and anxiety on a good day. Add a pandemic and multiple lockdowns, and the barrage of posts highlighting someone’s great parenting skills, someone else’s book launch and podcast appearances or weight loss results amid stay-home orders can significantly add to feelings of failure, especially in those already prone to them.

As author Rainsesford Stauffer writes in An Ordinary Age, “if you’re a young adult today … it’s a challenge not to feel as though finding yourself has been turned into a competitive sport. Now, it seems, striving to be extraordinary, being exceptional and being special are the same as being capable, fulfilled and happy”.

And it doesn’t help that perfectionism is often confused with high standards, and tends to be painted as a positive trait paired with our greatest accomplishments; “It drives me”, “it helps me to maintain a high standard”, “I wouldn’t be here without it” are all thoughts that routinely go through my head, even as I struggle with their negative impacts.

While it may be on the rise, perfectionism is manageable and can be put into perspective, provided we are ready to retrain our minds and, if necessary, get some help.

Campbell says that generally, it’s a good idea to have high standards; having goals helps you achieve things in life.

“It’s when these goals are either unachievable or only achievable at great cost that it makes it very difficult to feel good about yourself – this is when perfectionism can be problematic,” he says.

“If we have been rewarded for achieving very high standards, and particularly if this has happened on many occasions, then the ideas that we form about the need for unrelenting high standards become strongly reinforced. Eventually, these unrelenting high standards become our rules for living.”

He says to overcome perfectionism, we have to be prepared to adjust this rule and become more flexible with it: “If I expect less of myself, I may achieve a little less, but that’s OK.”

Martin suggests trying to diversify your activities and priorities, and incorporating some fun into your life.

“Where else can you get that sense of achievement, what other baskets can you put your eggs into? If they’re all in one, you’re very vulnerable,” he says. “No one part of our life should contribute more than a third to our self-esteem.”

A word of caution: pick your other baskets with care (I’d know: picking hobbies is risky: how do you turn on the brakes before thoughts start to intrude that maybe this could become your side hustle?)

“Some people who get to the top of their field may now pick something else to excel at [but] try not to set more traps for yourself,” he says. “When I talk to students I ask them, what sort of brother or friend are you? How much time do you spend outside?

Focusing on other activities such as spending more time with friends and family, and striving less for outcomes is much less likely to result in perfectionism, he says.

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