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Trapped in the search for perfection

Perfectionism is on the increase – and that is far from perfect

Photo from Unsplash

It is one of the stock answers people memorise for a job interview.

“Tell us something negative about yourself.” “Well, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, actually,” you smile. “My team just hate it that I have to get everything so right.”

The idea is that you need to say something that answers the question but at the same time adds to your portfolio of qualities which will land you the dream role. So being a perfectionist is really a compliment in disguise, right?

Wrong! In reality, perfectionism should be seen as something to be avoided in the workplace and generally can be a sign of underlying mental health problems. Want to brag about it now?

Perfectionism is defined as 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”.

There are some good attributes to perfectionism, such as higher than average levels of conscientiousness and increased motivation, but studies have found it is also a risk factor in a whole host of negative psychological problems, including depression, obsessive compulsive behaviour, anxiety issues and eating disorders.

This is because perfectionists are more likely to set inflexible and excessively high standards, to be overly-critical of their own behaviour – and that of others – and to have an all-or-nothing mindset about their performance.

Consequently, their self-esteem is easily knocked, which brings about higher levels of anxiety, stress and professional burnout.

One American study looked at 40 years of research on the subject to decide if perfectionists better performers at work.

It leafed through 95 studies which were conducted from the 1980s until the present day that looked at the relationship between perfectionism and how effective people were at work.

The overall finding was that perfectionism was a much bigger weakness than job applicants and employers assume.

The results confirmed that perfectionists were more motivated in their employment, working longer hours than average and being more engaged in what they did. But on the downside, perfectionism was also related to numerous negative traits, including higher levels of burnout, stress, ‘workaholism’, anxiety and depression, which all affected their employment or their colleagues.

Perfectionism can affect people of all ages and lifestyles but it is increasingly common among students – and it is on the increase.

Recent research involving 40,000 university students in the US, Britain and  Canada found a 33% increase since 1989 of those who feel they display traits of perfectionism to secure approval.

The report’s lead author, Thomas Curran, of the UK’s University of Bath, is worried about a hidden epidemic of perfectionism, which is still undiagnosed as a mental health disorder and is not on the radar of most psychologists.

So, why is perfectionism increasing? Curran blames the rise on neoliberalism, the political creed of free market capitalism which has ruled much of the world for the past few decades. “A marketised form of competition has pushed young people to focus on their achievements,” he says.

In the UK, he believes tuition fees for university courses have exacerbated the marketisation of education, along with a focus on results, which now extends down to seven-year-olds in Britain. He believes this is fuelling the incidence of perfectionism.

Celestine Chua, a writer and founder of PersonalExcellence.co, has compiled a checklist of traits to watch for if you think you are a perfectionist:

There is no room for mistakes: Whenever you see an error, you are the first to jump on it and correct it.

You have a very specific manner in which things should be done: People often do not understand you because you are so specific about how things get done. Because of that, you often find it very hard to find the right people to work with; some may find it hard to work with you altogether. You have an all-or-nothing approach. It is either you do everything well or you do not do it at all.

It is all about the end result: You do not care what happens in between or what it takes to achieve the goal. You just want to ensure that the end result is attained; otherwise you feel devastated.

You are extremely hard on yourself: Whenever something goes wrong, you are always quick to beat yourself up and feel extremely bad about a mistake for a long time.

You become depressed when you do not achieve your goals: You often mull over outcomes that do not turn out as envisioned. You keep wondering what if. You feel everything must be your fault if you do not achieve that perfect, desired result.

You have extremely high standards: Whatever you set your mind to do, you have high targets. Sometimes, these targets stress you out. Sometimes you are held back by these standards as you procrastinate and stop working on your goals out of fear that you cannot reach them.

Success is never enough: Whatever you do, there is always a greater height to aim for. You are not happy if you don’t go for a bigger goal. You are rarely content with status quo and you keep wanting more and better things.

You wait to do something at the ‘right’ moment: You are constantly waiting for the ‘right’ time to work on your goals. You only want to start when you are ‘ready’ so as to deliver your best quality of work. However, this state of readiness sometimes never seems to come.

You constantly spot mistakes when others do not see any: While this can simply mean that you are very detail-oriented, perfectionists often spot mistakes from a mile away. Sometimes these mistakes are real but sometimes they are imagined.

You spend copious amounts of time perfecting something: Perfection is the end goal. It is not uncommon for you to sacrifice your sleep, personal time and well-being, to bring your work to the highest level. To you, it is all part of achieving your goal.

Amy Sherman, an American therapist, counsellor and writer, says that perfectionists create problems for themselves in everyday situations because they expect everything to be done just right. And, over time, when this does not happen, they shy away from new situations and new challenges so that they avoid ‘failure’, as they see it.

“You do not even attempt certain things because you’re afraid you may not do it well or perform up to your standards,” she says. “This is a difficult way to live your life, because you are always in a state of frustration, disappointment, guilt or anxiety.”

So how can you try to dampen down your drive for perfection? Is there a ‘cure’? Sherman says: “It’s difficult changing a life-long habit of perfectionism, but it is possible over time.

“Essentially, you need to allow your expectations of yourself to become more realistic. That enables you to learn as you go and accept small mistakes as part of the learning curve.

“The more you try doing something, the closer you get to completing it. And that always feels good. After all, life is a journey. Taking some action is the secret to success and while you may not succeed at the pace you expect or the quality you expect, you are still making progress.”

Sherman has these suggestions of how to overcome being a perfectionist.

1. Understand that nobody is perfect and that striving for perfectionism is not based on any reality.

2. Mistakes are part of being human. We all make them and it is wonderful if you learn their valuable lessons so you can move on, in another direction.

3. Remain open to new ideas, patterns and behaviours because it means you are flexible and willing to try something different. Your own ideas may not be in your best interest and may be causing you the frustration you experience.

4. Be happy with yourself for trying and for doing as well as you are doing. Get rid of ‘should have’ ‘ought to’ and ‘must’ from your vocabulary and things will progress at the pace it’s supposed to, leaving you capable of enjoying the journey with less stress and worry.

So, although ‘perfectionism’, with it’s positive connotations, may be an attribute you never considered to be one that had to be reflected upon and potentially adjusted, it is important to assess whether or not you have let this trait have too much power in your daily life – both in the workplace and at home. ‘Perfectionism’ is not synonymous with ‘perfect’, and it has a darker side which could be damaging not only your enjoyment of life, but your relationships and possibly even your health. Maybe it is time to lighten up a little if this resonates with you.

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