For a self-identified perfectionist like Karleigh Rose Pettit, a 31-year-old development officer in Philly, checklists and schedules are the glue that holds life together.
“There’s a fine line between neurosis and perfectionism,” Pettit jokes. “I don’t constantly shift papers on my desk, but I do eat my M&Ms in color order.” She says her biggest fear is letting someone else down or not getting something done on time or correctly, and that her perfectionism is a “daily struggle.”
“Am I staying later than everyone else and am I checking off the boxes they are?” she says, relating the thoughts that run through her mind most days at work. “I’m very self-critical, and I know my perfectionism can roll into anxiety.”
A lot of people like to humblebrag about their perfectionist tendencies. And there’s nothing wrong with striving to be your best. But experts say the self-criticism Pettit talks about—beating yourself up when you fail to meet your marks—is the dark side of perfectionism that can, in some cases, promote depression and other mental and physical health issues.
“We used to think [about perfectionists] that you either are one and it’s bad, or you’re not,” says Philip Gnilka, an assistant professor of counseling and special education at Virginia Commonwealth University who has published research on perfectionism and its links to depression and low life satisfaction. “Now we think there are three different groups.”
He says the first group is composed of those who don’t have perfectionist tendencies. The second group is made up of perfectionists who have high personal standards but who don’t take it too hard or personally when they fail to meet them.
“For the third group—the pathological group—everything has to be done perfectly or it just bugs them,” he says. “They feel like they need to be the perfect student or the perfect employee or the perfect spouse or the perfect friend, and if they can’t do all those things perfectly, they can really beat themselves up.”
This demand for perfection isn’t always directed at the perfectionist himself. While many perfectionists are “self-oriented,” some are “other-oriented,” research shows. They may give themselves a pass, but they can be extremely critical of coworkers, kids, or romantic partners. Other-oriented perfectionism is linked with antisocial and narcissistic tendencies, the research suggests.
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But back to the self-directed types. Gnilka says “rumination” or negative self-talk is a big part of pathological perfectionism. “You might say to yourself ‘I’m a failure’ or ‘people won’t like me, what am I doing here?’,” he says.
There are other overlapping symptoms. “Persistent striving, fear of failure, self-criticism, negative self-evaluation . . . [all of these] can contribute to negative mental health states,” says Roz Shafran, a professor and chair of translational psychology at University College London. “People with maladaptive perfectionism typically strive for unrealistic high standards and are highly self-critical when they fail to reach them.”
Shafran has coauthored studies on clinical perfectionism and its psychopathology. She says people with unhealthy perfectionism—also known as maladaptive or pathological perfectionism—tend to wrap up their sense of self-worth with their ability to meet their personal standards. Of course, the world and those of us wandering around in it are imperfect. If the goal is perfection, failure is a constant. And so those who can’t shrug off small personal or professional lapses—or at least separate these shortfalls from how they regard themselves—are bound to feel low.
While perfectionism isn’t now considered a mental health disorder—“It’s just a personality characteristic,” Gnilka says—it has been tied to a number of mental health conditions. Perfectionists are at greater risk for anxiety disorders than those without these tendencies, finds another of Shafran’s studies.
Like other traits, perfectionism presents along a spectrum. A person may have a mild or severe case, and her perfectionism may mellow or worsen over time. Experts have also developed a few tools that can help diagnose perfectionism. One of those tools—known as the “Almost Perfect Scale”—asks respondents to rate their level of agreement with statements like “I often feel frustrated because I can’t meet my goals” and “I often feel disappointment after completing a task because I know I could have done better.”
Where does perfectionism come from? It’s likely an equal mix of genetic and environmental factors, Gnilka says. “I think there’s a genetic aspect, but different parenting or family styles may play a part,” he says. “If a parent is constantly giving a child approval only when they’re meeting very high standards, and [the parent is] withholding affection when those standards aren’t met, that seems to possibly play a role.” There’s also some early evidence that social media may be fueling a rise in perfectionist tendencies.
A recent study from the American Psychological Association found that, between 1989 and 2017, there was a 10 percent increase in self-oriented perfectionism among college students. Maybe more tellingly, a subtype of perfectionism known as “socially prescribed perfectionism”—which the study authors describe as feeling like the people around you have excessive, uncontrollable, and unfair expectations of you—jumped by 32 percent during that same time period. The authors write that exposures to others “perfect self-representations” on social media may intensity a person’s feelings of imperfection and self-criticism.
Whole books have been written about treating perfectionism. (Shafran coauthored one meant for health professionals.) But some early trials have found mindfulness meditation may help a perfectionist recognize and limit the kind of harmful thinking and self-talk that fuels anxiety and other negative consequences.
“Social support is also huge,” Gnilka says. Spending time with close friends and loved ones who make you laugh and aren’t critical of you is one of the best antidotes to many unhealthy mental states—perfectionism included, he says. Cognitive behavioral therapy may also be helpful.
“If I had to give one tip it would be to try to separate yourself and your value as a person from your achievements,” Shafran says. In other words, aiming for perfection is fine. But no one’s perfect.
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