How to tackle perfectionism: The silent condition making us sick, sad and die young.

It’s time, as a culture, we stop and take a good hard look at ourselves.

An alarming new study reveals a significant rise in perfectionism over the past three decades – a condition now linked strongly to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, early morbidity, suicide ideation and suicide itself.

Broadly defined, perfectionism is the combination of unnecessarily high personal standards and a tendency to be overly critical of oneself. It is not a behaviour, but rather a highly critical way of being in a relationship with yourself. Nothing is ever “enough” for the perfectionist — not good enough, skinny enough, strong enough, smart enough, witty enough, pretty enough, successful enough… not anything enough.

So, what is it about our culture that has perfectionism on the rise? Why the growing tendency for us to be so crushingly harsh on ourselves?

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Many smart people blame the cultural move away from collectivism (where people identify as being part of a community focused on the greater good for all) and the rise of individualism, an ideology promoting personal prowess and competition between people.

The rise of perfectionism across western nations suggests we’ve created a dog-eat-dog world that’s making us sick, sad and die young. Let’s explore this further.

The rise of individualism

Gone are the stable, uncomplicated and tight-knitted communities of our cave-dwelling ancestors. In fact, one in four Australians now live alone, a number which has risen steadily since the 1970s, the exact same time that neoliberalism became the dominating ideology for many western nations.

Put simply, neoliberalism means money talks, the free market reigns and individuals must compete against each other for best jobs, biggest salaries and other money-related benefits. Life represents a Darwinian-style race that only the fittest will survive.


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To thrive (and let’s face it, who wants any less?), individuals must better themselves academically, socially and professionally to become the natural selection for greatness and its associated rewards. This culturally prescribed competitiveness weighs heavily on people, forcing individuals to become increasingly self-interested, stretching for greater levels of perfection.

Culture says you CAN have it all, so we strive

The rise of the individual also sees removal of class associated glass ceilings. Anyone willing to work hard enough can meet the alluring promise of one day “having it all”.

Rising to the top of any field, however, requires more than just hard work. In addition to being skilled and hardworking enough, a person may need to be smart enough, talented enough, creative enough, attractive enough, socially networked enough, stylish enough, cultured enough, or perhaps even just lucky enough… and the list goes on.

The cultural promise of “having it all” means we keep stretching to become more than we are, achieve more than we have and live in the hope that we will one day have more than we ever dreamt of. Anything less is relegated to the camp of not good enough and we are never satisfied within ourselves. We must keep striving towards perfection.


Parents raising kids must be perfect too

Experts have noted that as many as two in five children now present with perfectionistic tendencies. Given its noted link to depression, anxiety, bulimia and early morbidity, some have pegged it to be an emerging “public health epidemic”.

As parents feel the pressure to be more perfect themselves, they are also under pressure to raise a child who will be perfect enough to get ahead of their pack as well.

Their anxiety about raising children who are all things “enough” to get ahead means parenting styles are changing to support perfectionistic tendencies in our offspring too.

Combating perfectionism: How to turn it all around

Ironically, research shows healing the harsh inner critic of your perfectionistic self actually ensures you are more likely to get ahead.

If you or a loved one is suffering, you now know two things: a) it’s not your fault and b) you’re not alone. There are two key strategies you can employ to heal perfectionism and radically improve the experience of being you in the world.

The first is to challenge the loftiness of your goals so that realising them becomes more attainable. Secondly, you need to coach your inner critic to be more loving, compassionate and kind.

Combatting a pervasive and culturally driven condition such as perfectionism is serious business. It will take some work, initially, but healing yourself is the same strategy required for shifting our culture and healing the world, one recovering perfectionist at a time.

Author and researcher Eloise King is a recovering perfectionist and the author of The Self-Love Project, a six-week online program supporting perfectionists to reprogram themselves for more self-kindness, compassion and love.