Why Perfectionism Is on the Rise—and How to Overcome It
The desire to be perfect is something most of us can identify with. But today, growing numbers of people are struggling to match unreachable ideals, and layered with harsh levels of self-criticism, this drive toward perfection can contribute to a struggle with anxiety and depression.
Personality psychologist Thomas Curran was drawn to the perfectionism phenomenon after struggling with excessive self-criticism in his own life. He teamed up with fellow psychologist Andrew Hill on a first-of-its-kind study that examines perfectionism across generations.
Curran and Hill worked with more than 40,0000 American, British, and Canadian college students between 1989 and 2016. Students completed a multidimensional perfectionism scale, which measured three types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism. They found that perfectionism has increased drastically over the last few decades—33 percent since 1989—and has coincided with cultural changes that served to exasperate these feelings. The rising trends were evident in all three types of perfectionism, says Curran, but “perhaps most concerning was the rise of socially prescribed perfectionism. Young people are seemingly internalizing a preeminent contemporary myth that things—including themselves—should be perfect.”
We spoke with Curran about the different types of perfectionism, the damaging health effects, how—and why—it’s affecting specific demographics, and ways to overcome it.
A Q&A with Thomas Curran, Ph.D.
There are three types of perfectionism.
Self-oriented perfectionism: Those who attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are highly critical of themselves.
Socially prescribed perfectionism: Those who believe their social circle is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval and avoid rejection
Other-oriented perfectionism: Those who impose unrealistic standards on people around them and evaluate others critically.
These types of perfectionism tend to be interrelated. That said, individuals will tend to have higher levels of one type, depending largely on where their self-worth is obtained. Self-oriented perfectionists get their self-worth from achievement—especially relative to others. Socially prescribed perfectionists obtain their self-worth when others approve of or accept them. Other-oriented perfectionists feel a sense of self-worth when others respect and admire them.
There is some research on classical twin studies that illustrates how much of the perfectionism trait comes down to genetic factors. Those studies suggest that between 15 to 25 percent variability in perfectionism is heritage-based. Research also shows that around 30 to 45 percent of between-person differences in levels of perfectionism can be attributed to genetics, meaning there is a small amount that tends to be passed from generation to generation.
However, the biggest differences we see in perfectionism across individuals can be attributed to social processes—i.e., the immediate family environment and the broader social environment that individuals are brought up in.
Findings from various studies suggests that males and females don’t really differ in levels of perfectionism. Based on recent analysis Andrew Hill and I did, there were no conclusive differences across males and females.
We need more data to definitively say where this personality trait is most prevalent. We are seeing regional variations. Self-orientated perfectionism appears to be highest in the US. We also see high levels of self-orientated perfectionism in the UK and Canada.
In more communal cultures, such as those found predominantly in East Asia, we tend to see higher socially prescribed perfectionism than in the US, UK, and Canada. This signifies that they believe the social environment is highly demanding and expectant. Given that these cultures typically have a greater sense of communal responsibility and pressure, higher socially prescribed perfectionism is perhaps not surprising.
Based on our findings on rising perfectionism and the variations we see across countries, this raises important questions about how we’re structuring society and whether our society’s heavy emphasis on competition and social comparison is benefiting young people.
According to Harvard professor of political philosophy Michael Sandel, over the past thirty years in the US, UK, and Canada—but especially in the US—we have progressively moved from having a market economy to being a market society. In the US, we believe in the progression of an individualist culture. What we consider to be market-based reforms have seemingly progressed faster in the US although they have been occurring across all western societies. The market, and marketized forms of competition, are today firmly embedded within all areas of young people’s lives, including education, where they arguably shouldn’t be. Whether it is the number of friends young people have on Facebook, the number of likes they get on Instagram, the number of goals they score in soccer, or their GPA in school, everything is given a metric. This is done to sift, sort, and rank young people in a culture that prizes achievement, image, and merit above everything else.
We tend to see this idea of a meritocracy: If we strive hard enough we’ll get the rewards and status. If we don’t strive hard enough, then our due rewards are to live with less money and benefits. This is supported by the American dream: If we put in the effort and achieve, then we deserve a high place in society. A consequence of that cultural backdrop is that young American people tend to score higher on those self-set standards of needing to strive and perform perfectly. This is not to say these standards don’t exist in the UK and Canada, but this phenomenon is particularly astute in the US.
It is interesting to consider how young people are coming to develop a sense of self and identity in such a culture. The notion of a flawed and disordered self appears especially relevant. One that is preoccupied with social evaluation, characterized by a focus on deficiencies, and hypersensitive to criticism and failure. This sense of self is a close match to the sense of self constructed by perfectionists.
Perfection is an impossible outcome and a core vulnerability to serious mental illness. Those who become preoccupied with it set themselves up for failure and psychological turmoil. Perfectionists are afflicted by an obsession with gaining the validation of others and proving their worth through faultless performance after faultless performance. They ruminate chronically about their deficiencies, brood over what could have been or should have been, and experience considerable shame about their perceived unworthiness. They are also highly stress-reactive, derive self-esteem from others’ approval, and have high achievement standards. When those things aren’t met it can damage their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. As a consequence, they feel badly about themselves and carry lots of shame and guilt.
Many studies have identified a link between perfectionism and depression, anxiety, and, in the worst case, suicide. According to the most recent global health estimates from the World Health Organization, serious mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, afflict a record number of young people. In reflecting on our findings, then, one issue of special relevance is the harm and psychological difficulties that might accompany an increase in perfectionism.
We believe that the growth in perfectionism that we have observed offers the potential to explain some of the heightened prevalence of serious mental illness. At the very least, increases in perfectionism make for a compelling backdrop to these other trends.
No. When we turn to perfectionism’s ostensibly adaptive qualities, such as meticulousness and diligence, we are often confusing it with useful qualities, such as conscientiousness. It’s important to differentiate between perfectionism and more desirable traits like conscientiousness, perseverance, and diligence.
A conscientious individual is very different from a perfectionist. They strive to perfect things, their art or their craft. On the other hand, perfectionists strive to perfect the self or, more precisely, to repair an imperfect self. While failures and setbacks are indicative of a flawed act, technique, or behavior for the conscientious individual, they indicate a flawed self for the perfectionist.
Simply put, a perfectionist cannot extricate themselves from the act and their sense of self-esteem, versus those who have high self-standards who strive to better their act, behavior, or outcome. This is why all subtypes of perfectionism, including self-oriented perfectionism and especially socially prescribed perfectionism, are associated with many psychological problems.
If you are experiencing any mental health difficulties, or encounter someone experiencing them it’s very important that you seek support from a mental health professional.
That said, there are things one can do to better manage their perfectionism, or help others who are struggling with it, including:
1. Understand that failure is not weakness. Resist the urge to fall into a competitive mind-set of constantly striving to outdo others. Because perfectionism arises from self-worth that is contingent on high achievement and others’ approval, perfectionists are hypersensitive to failure. For this reason, when facing an important exam, crucial deadline, or business pitch, the perfectionist is consumed with doubt and worry about the possible consequences of things going wrong. They fear that if they don’t do it perfectly, they’ll expose an inner weakness or frailty. As a result, those with high levels of perfectionism feel every bump in the road. This chronic stress can then lead to mental and physical health problems. Instead of focusing your attention on the fear of failure, focus on what might be learned from it.
2. Practice self-compassion. Instead of self-castigation when we haven’t achieved success, it’s important to be compassionate to ourselves. Often this competitive mindset tends to turn into a high level of self-criticism when we haven’t succeeded. We can force ourselves into higher goals, which then we subsequently don’t meet and there’s a negative spiral. If necessary, check your goals and recalibrate them downward with a view to seeing these stressful events as opportunities to develop. And if you do fail? People with higher levels of perfectionism will typically be ambitious, hard-working, and diligent. A little bit of self-compassion when things don’t go well will help keep you that way.
3. Redefine your goals. By definition, perfect is an impossible and unrealistic goal. Have awareness that we can strive for more desirable traits, such as diligence, flexibility, and perseverance. In the work setting, it’s important for managers to recognize if they see someone exhibiting these traits and show compassion. Focus on the learning and development aspects of the project rather than a missed outcome.
4. Know that done is better than perfect. Not only do high goals impede success for perfectionists, but so too does their tendency to postpone difficult tasks. When failure is shattering, moving forward on tasks that carry a high risk of failure becomes difficult. Perfectionists often tend to procrastinate because they cannot fail on tasks that they haven’t started. When deadlines loom, this paralysis can be accompanied by rumination and brooding that is damaging to a person’s psychological health. Procrastination is not something that perfectionists voluntarily disclose, but the link is supported by research. If it’s apparent that a fear of failing is holding you back, try to take small, manageable steps. Getting started is the hardest part. Thinking about and reminding yourself of your previous experiences and successes will help. Being impatient, demanding, or critical with yourself won’t.
There are a lot of negative things written about social media. Some of it is justified, and some isn’t. Social media emerged into our market-based society from people feeling a desire to share images and experiences with each other on a platform. In some ways, that can be a very positive thing: It can bring together communities of people with shared interests; it can generate a lot of relatedness. The problem arises when there are underlying vulnerabilities, which are then often magnified by social media. Because perfectionists require approval from others, they tend to use social media as a lens to curate an image of the perfect life or lifestyle for this approval. This can become very addictive and highly damaging in the long term.
This is especially evident when perfectionists haven’t received validation, or when they see others seemingly perfect self-representations and make a judgement that they are inferior. From this, negative body image, lowered mood, and psychological health problems may arise.
Social media isn’t an evil for everyone, but perfectionism is a vulnerability factor to problematic social media use.
Thomas Curran, Ph.D., is a social and personality psychologist. He is an assistant professor in the Department for Health at the University of Bath and a member of the Centre for Motivation and Health Behaviour Change at the University of Bath. He has written and spoken out extensively about perfectionism and its relation to the rising numbers of young people struggling with mental health.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.