“You’re such an idiot”. “You’ll never be smart, pretty or funny enough.” “You always mess things up.”
Far from the positive trait worth cultivating many believe it to be, perfectionism is a clinical condition that starts young. Loosely defined it involves unnecessarily high personal standards and a harsh, strong and often relentless inner critic. It’s a highly critical way of being in a relationship with yourself.
Far from a recipe for longer-term success, research shows perfectionists are more likely to fail and even die young. But why?
Stress and mental illness
A recent study published in the Psychological Bulletin shows that perfectionism has risen significantly over the past 27 years amongst western tertiary students. It coincides with World Health Organisation reports showing record numbers of young people are living with a mental illness.
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Despite being highly capable, perfectionists rarely feel good enough, smart enough, likable enough, successful enough or ‘anything’ enough. As the chronic victim of their own inner critic, a perfectionist’s body is often saturated in stress hormones, including cortisol and plasma lactate. Happy hormones such as serotonin are suppressed leading to increased risk of mental, emotional and/or physical health problems longer term.
High levels of chronic stress can hijack the amygdala and shut down the logical thinking part of the brain. Without the necessary skills for emotional regulation, longer-term success can be elusive.
Unhealthy fear of failure
In his famous quote about failure, world-best basketballer Michael Jordan states:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Failure is necessary for learning, development and progress. The perfectionist’s fear of failure can motivate them to work harder and longer than peers to excel in the short term, even if at a great personal cost. It will, however, stop them from attempting things that contribute to their longer-term success and they often give up early if at risk of being seen as wrong or less than perfect.
Perfectionists link their self-worth to their ability to excel, not to their intrinsic worthiness as a human being. If they fall short of their own lofty goal or high standard, they interpret themselves as a failure which feeds low self-esteem.
A person with robust self-esteem knows that failure is about the task, not about their worthiness as a human being.
Common perfectionistic tendencies include having excessively high standards, being worried about making mistakes and feeling like you are never good enough. Having critical parents also gets a mention in the research.