Well-Being//

Perfectionism Is Making Me (And Other Millennials) Sick

Notes from a recovering perfectionist.

By Madrolly/Shutterstock
By Madrolly/Shutterstock

Hi, I’m Danielle, and I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’m also the new Stressed in the City columnist at Thrive. I started this column with one goal in mind: To create a more open dialogue around mental health, stress, and burnout, as well as where those three things intersect. Because, as someone who suffers from panic disorder, anxiety, depression and PTSD, I’m more than well acquainted, and want to use my experience(s), and this platform, to create constructive conversation regarding these universal hardships.

And that’s where perfectionism comes in. While it may not seem like a particularly “big deal” as far as our mental health is concerned, it is. Perfectionism is something I deal with personally, so I have seen the havoc it can wreak on our well-being. As Vox pointed out, perfectionism is especially troubling “because it has been linked to an array of mental health issues — a meta-analysis of 284 studies found that high levels of perfectionism were correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The constant stress of striving to be perfect can also leave people fatigued, stressed and suffering from headaches and insomnia.”

One of the ways perfectionism manifests is by perpetuating an unsustainable I-can-do-it-all mentality. We pile too much on our plates, and tell ourselves that success means getting it all done — and perfectly — and never taking breaks, asking for help, or giving up. As a writer, perfectionism sometimes shows up in my creative process, with thoughts like… What if my piece isn’t good enough? What if I don’t deserve this opportunity? When I voice these concerns aloud, my very understanding editor says it’s just a “perfectionist flare up,” which sometimes helps me to put some distance between me and my perfectionistic thoughts. 

Other times, however, it’s harder to “snap out of” my perfectionism. Just last week, for instance, my self-worth took a major hit when I made a difficult call to take a leave of absence from grad school. To be frank, part of me was relieved as soon as I made the decision. Juggling school, a job, and the dozens of other random things I’m involved in just wasn’t sustainable. I was on the brink of burnout — maybe already burnt — and I knew something had to give. But even knowing this was the right decision for me, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed… because I’m not proving to the world that I can do it all. For people with my strain of perfectionism, wearing millions of hats feels like a badge of honor — even though, in reality, all it does is wear us down.

In fact, that’s the great irony of perfectionism: it usually backfires, keeping us from achieving our true goals. “Pursuing perfection — a goal that is intangible, fleeting and rare — may result in a higher rate of failures and a lower rate of successes that leaves perfectionists more likely to neurotically stew about their imperfections and less likely to conscientiously pursue their goals,” write researchers Dr. Simon Sherry and Martin M. Smith on The Conversation. Sherry and Smith point out that perfectionism has increased substantially over the past 25 years, with millennials struggling with perfectionism more than previous generations did. 

There are a multitude of factors at play. Some research, for instance, points to the rise of helicopter parenting, or success-focused parenting, leading to more children never feeling that they can meet their parents’ expectations — a feeling that can trickle into adulthood. Then there’s social media, which can easily trigger unhealthy comparisons and, in turn, perfectionism. After all, when we’re being bombarded with “flawless” images in our feeds, and the constant highlight reel of other people’s accomplishments, it’s easy to think we don’t measure up.

And while perfectionism in an all-season affair, for me, ’tis the most triggering season of all. My mailbox this time of year is filled to the brim with holiday cards showing off the senders’ seemingly perfect lives. Meanwhile, reunions and festivities abound, where I’m constantly met with questions that seem especially designed to elicit “not-enough” syndrome: “How much do you make?” “Why don’t you have kids?” “You’ve put on some weight, you know.” 

Confronted with all this, I had to stop and ask myself: Who am I working so hard to prove myself to, and is it worth it? Perfectionism wears down my mind and body — I’m more prone to panic attacks, and to running myself so ragged that I’m constantly getting sick. Clearly, the answer is no — the standards I often hold myself to are decidedly not worth it. As a recovering perfectionist, internalizing this realization doesn’t happen overnight. But little by little, I’m coming to terms with the fact that prioritizing my physical and mental health is the most “perfect” thing I can do.

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