In a world where success is measured by excellence and perfection, it’s easy to see why some people become perfectionists. But living your life to these impossibly high standards is exhausting. So why do we find overcoming perfection so difficult?

Before we talk about overcoming perfectionism, let’s start with what perfectionists are, and what they’re not.

What is perfectionism?

A perfectionist is a person that sets extremely high standards for themselves. They want everything to be perfect. They associate their successes and failures with their identity. When a perfectionist realises they cannot live up to these impossible standards, they feel like a complete failure. Perfectionists will often procrastinate over a task. This is because they worry about not being able to complete it to perfection.

“Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” Andrew Hill

On the other hand, a person that wants to do well will acknowledge their failures. They won’t feel bad if they make mistakes. They know that mistakes are all part of learning. Their attitude to success and failure will rest on whether they’ve tried their very best. To them, that’s what counts.

The problem the perfectionist has is that because they set such high goals and standards, they invariably fail. As a result, this affects their self-confidence and self-esteem. In addition, it can lead to a whole host of other psychological disorders.

“There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer.” Sarah Egan –  Curtin University, Perth

For example, perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a variety of clinical issues, these include:

  • Agoraphobia
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic headaches
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Hoarding
  • Insomnia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Suicide

So now we know what perfectionism is, how is it caused?

What causes perfectionism?

There are many factors that can have a contributory effect on perfectionism. Some start in childhood, and others can begin in late teens.

For instance:

  • Living with a parent that exhibits perfectionist traits can influence the child to believe this is the only way to behave. This is particularly valid if the parent chastises the child for less-than-perfect performances.
  • Having a parent that pushes them to succeed in all areas of their life. Or parents that hold their children up to unrealistic expectations.
  • A child that endured an early insecure attachment with their main caregiver. In these cases, they could go on to use perfectionism as a way of controlling their environment as an adult. Feeling chaos as children is replaced by the feeling of calm from the control of perfectionism.
  • Those that have a history of high accomplishments often feel pressure to remain at the top of their game. This can lead to perfectionist behaviour. For example, gifted children who do exceptionally well at school feel pressured once they leave. They have to continue their achievements and develop perfectionist traits.
  • Some people have a fear of inadequacy or disapproval from others that leads them to become perfectionists. For them, the only way they will escape ridicule or derision is by offering up perfect work.

Are perfectionist’s brains different?

The perfectionist’s brain is in a constant state of stress and anxiety because it is having to live up to impossible goals and standards. This causes the brain to send signals to the amygdala. This is our fight-or-flight centre. Stress levels rise in this area and cause hormones to flood our bloodstream.

These include adrenaline and cortisol. Too much adrenalin can raise blood pressure. Whereas high levels of cortisol can cause weight gain, problems thinking clearly, and depression. Not only that, but cortisol is also known to impair the brain’s natural ability to repair itself.

In addition, in one study, negative aspects of perfection were found to affect two regions of the brain:

  • Left Precuneus – involved in several different processes including visuospatial ability (how we understand the space between objects), episodic memory retrieval and self-processing operations (related to Theory of Mind).
  • Temporal Thalamus – plays an important role in sleep, consciousness, sleep, and sensory interpretation.

Participants were asked to think about their particular obligations and tasks. Both of these areas of the brain showed an increase in grey matter. In addition, an increase in grey matter correlated with persistence. You associate persistence with hard work and overachievers. Perfectionists tend to be hardworking overachievers.

Not to mention that higher grey matter volume in the thalamus has been linked to Obsessive-Compulsive disorder (OCD). Likewise, OCD is a common trait amongst perfectionists. Whereas, on the other hand, those with OCD can also show perfectionist tendencies.

Why overcoming perfectionism is so difficult

For those who strive to be a perfectionist, they employ a whole range of reasons or excuses to justify their behaviour.

For example:

  • “So I like a clean house? What’s wrong with that?”
  • “There’s nothing bad about being on time, it’s a good thing.”
  • “I’m not a perfectionist, I just like to get things right.”
  • “What’s the point of doing something if you’re not going to do it well?”

But why should we be so bothered about overcoming perfectionism? The problem is that perfectionism has strong links to depression and suicide. Perfectionism is unattainable. Because of this, many people believe they are not good enough. Notably students.

One shocking study from 2007 revealed a tragic statistic. Of the 20 British students that had committed suicide, 11 of them admitted to placing ‘exceedingly high’ demands and expectations on themselves. These traits are typical of perfectionists.

There’s another problem with overcoming perfectionism. Perfectionists are the least likely group of people to ask for help.

Ways of overcoming perfectionism

The first problem with overcoming perfectionism is to realise that perfectionism is a problem in the first place. Having high standards is perfectly fine. We should all strive for excellence. But being a perfectionist is not healthy.

Your achievements do not define who you are as a person. It is okay to make mistakes. View these mistakes as a chance to learn from them.

Remember, some of the world’s the greatest artists and writers believed they were failures. Claude Monet destroyed 15 canvases in one day. Charles Dickens burned 20 years’ worth of papers and letters.

“My life has been nothing but a failure.” Claude Monet

  • Replace perfectionist ideals with realistic goals instead. Once you start achieving your goals, you’ll start to regain your self-esteem.
  • Recognise the good things in your life, the things that you’re proud of. If there’s stuff you’re not so proud of, make a plan to work on them.
  • Small imperfections do not ruin a whole person. In fact, we are made up of a myriad of different things. Try to view yourself as a whole. Don’t just focus on the one imperfection.
  • A lot of people achieve their goals because of their little imperfections. It allowed them to stand out from the crowd. It forced them to take control of their lives. We are all unique. Take your uniqueness and run with it!

Finally, the best way of overcoming perfectionism is to stop procrastinating. There is no perfect time to start something. There’s also no problem if you fail. Why not get stuck in and see what happens. You never know, it could be amazing. But if it isn’t, there’s always tomorrow.

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