“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.
All are linked strongly to thinking about suicide more often.
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Healing perfectionism for a better and longer life
Self-criticism is a deeply ingrained way of being for the perfectionist. It can take time to replace the self-critic with a more loving, compassionate and nurturing inner voice, but with coaching and a commitment to change it is absolutely possible.
Challenging lofty goals to be more realistic and attainable is helpful. This gives your inner critic less material to criticise.
If the answer is yes to any of the questions below, rethink your goals so you can achieve them with a more joyful and sustainable level of effort.
1. Will I have to suffer a lot to actually reach my existing goals?
2. Do I expect to achieve more than most others expect of themselves?
3. Would life be more enjoyable if I wasn’t so hard on myself?
The second, and possibly most important thing is to practice Self-Love. Understand that you don’t have to be the biggest or bestest to be worthy. All human beings have worth, including you, no matter what.
Make a firm decision to stop self-depreciation, coaching your inner voice to be more loving, supportive and positive, like a best friend might be when you share your daily struggles.
In the same way a mother aims to ensure her child is warm, well-nourished, feels connected and is responded to with kindness, love and compassion in times of need, perfectionists must retrain themselves to respond to their own needs in the exactly the same way. Learning the art of self-compassion is a must to heal perfectionism.
Author and researcher Eloise King is a recovering perfectionist and creator of The Self-Love Project, an esteemed six-week online program supporting perfectionists to reprogram themselves for more self-kindness, compassion and love.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24-hour support.