Perfectionism is a disease. The antidote is simple: pull over the comfort blanket of imperfection.
Updated: Aug 18, 2019
Perfection is out. Imperfection is in. We need to re-set and re-frame. Now's the time. Let's be more vulnerable and more willing to fail. Only then, will we all win.
I was listening to a TED talk recently by Thomas Curran ('Our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse') and I thought about writing this post. In it he talks about some research (below) and how over the last couple of decades the level of perfectionism has been on the rise. This is a massive issue for us and the society we live in. It is largely due to the advent of social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat) that often show only the best 10% of peoples' lives. Lives that are faultless. Lives in 4k HD. Sun tanned. Trouble free. Wind swept. Interesting. Kids that don't behave badly. Face-tuned to, well, perfection.
What does 'perfectionism' actually mean?
'Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterised by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations'. (Wiki)
Seems like a fools errand to me. Even in cases where we get close, success is often short lived because the next thing that comes along will knock us off our perch. So we end up right back at the start again ... and so the cycle starts over. Regardless of what happens, we might as well breathe and enjoy the moment because otherwise we become that proverbial hamster running round and round on the wheel.
But perfectionism being a problem is not new, right?
Right, it isn't. From the stuff I have read on this, the idea that perfectionism is a large problem is not new news. Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett did a series of studies back in the 90s about perfectionism and published a paper about its impacts on people (http://hewittlab.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2014/11/MPS.pdf). They proposed three root causes of perfectionism and outlined the dangers to our mental and emotional well-being;
1) 'Self-orientated perfectionism'; in simple terms, this where we set high, exacting standards for ourselves that are rarely achievable; thus leading to regular levels of dissatisfaction with who we are or what we do. The impact of this on us is often low self-worth and, in even more extreme cases, self-loathing.
2) 'Other-orientated perfectionism'; similar to the above but where people set high and exacting standards of others; again that are, more often than not, unreasonable and unachievable. The main difference to the self-oriented approach is that, any frustration with not meeting these exacting standards is directed outwards towards other people.
3) 'Socially-prescribed perfectionism'; perhaps the one most on the rise - where people try to adopt levels of perfectionism that they see as being prescribed by other people, people whom they normally deem to be significant in their lives (e.g. partners, bosses, work colleagues, friends, etc).
Unsurprisingly, all have a range of mental ill-health consequences; such as prolonged low mood, feelings of low self worth, anxiety, depression, and in some cases leading on from there.
So, what's the problem?
It is estimated that stress induced mental ill-health absences from work costs the UK economy 2% of its annual Gross Domestic Product (figures from Acas). That's £40bn a year for the UK and I suspect this is a low ball estimate. We have just voted to leave the EU for a third of that. So, if there is a clear link between perfectionism and a variety of mental ill-health issues then there is a moral and also an economic case for dialling these perfectionistic characteristics back quite a bit.
Perfectionism is often talked about as a tongue-in-cheek weakness; described as an area for personal development in performance reviews; and in job interviews, when the interviewee is asked for areas of feedback received, development or possible weakness. Often said not with shame, though, but with a wry smile that implies it is something that the person is quite proud of - perhaps because they really see it as a strength used for getting things just right or achieving great results.
This might sound strong but I believe perfectionism is a growing cancer spreading into our cells of self-worth. Dramatic I know; but the danger of large swaths of us never being able to feel quite good enough, not smart enough, or having low self worth is a huge problem. At a time when we need people to innovate at work. At a time when our World is facing some of the largest social and ecological challenges ever. We need people to stand up and be counted. We need people to be willing to step forward. We need people to be more prepared than ever to fail.
Out with perfectionism, I say!
Otherwise, the implications of this are that we are setting standards or expectations for ourselves or others that are unattainable. Then using these as a yard stick for measuring our or others' success. This is bad news because it can determine whether we go for that new job or promotion. Whether we get hired or even get fired.
There is a much talked about idea of failure being essential to eventual success. Whilst I believe this is of course a crucial fibre in the rich tapestry of life, there is a conflict going on. Because the very idea of failure being a key part of the journey to success is likely to be the most unwelcome guest at the party for the people of perfectionism.
Perhaps the most worrying thing, though, is, that it's impacting our children and young people the most. The standards they feel they have to live up to across a huge range of areas cannot from a strong bedrock for a healthy life. We absolutely have to change this. Somehow.
Hope is found in embracing imperfection.
There is hope starting to emerge, though. With the idea that Brené Brown has spent years researching: the idea that real whole-heartedness and fulfilment is found through our openness to vulnerability. The idea that openness to feelings of shame are just a fact of life. That imperfection is our new partner. That we should love and embrace all our flaws because they make us human. That we should turn down the volume of perfection. That opening ourselves up to these things actually enables other, happier feelings like joy. We when we feel, we feel everything. This set of ideas is a significant psychological liberator of our time. Something that we can all do, simply by changing the narrative - for ourselves internally and outwardly towards others. Liberating ourselves from us. Liberating ourselves from others. Liberating ourselves from the situation of socially-prescribed perfection.
The pursuit of perfection in life and business almost always leads to unsatisfactory outcomes. So perhaps we need to take a collective breath and let go. Let go a little. Let go a lot. Be kinder to yourself and to others. Allow in a little more imperfection. Then a little more. It will free us and those around us to think more openly, more creatively and more innovatively. Life and work will be healthier and more enjoyable ...
... and you never know; in the words of Oscar Wilde: if you 'Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars'.