We live in a world dominated by the pursuit of perfection. From how we perform at school and in the workplace, to whether we win a social game of tennis and even how we choose romantic partners and raise our kids, achieving top marks or the best possible outcome has come to define our understanding of success.
There’s no doubt that setting goals and having high expectations is a healthy pattern of behaviour, but when these habits are taken to an extreme level it can increase the risk of some of our most common mental health problems.
Clinical perfectionists set themselves unrealistic high standards and are overly critical of their efforts to achieve these objectives. “These people judge their self-worth in terms of their ability to pursue and achieve their goals,” says Professor Tracey Wade MAPS* from the School of Psychology at Flinders University.
“The thing about this group of people is the bar starts to escalate higher and higher because if they achieve a goal, they consider it must have been too easy so they start to escalate the level of the goal and eventually it gets to the point where it becomes quite unrealistic. If they don’t achieve their goal, they interpret it as meaning they are less worthwhile as a person.”
While clinical perfectionism isn’t classified as a specific psychological disorder, it’s what psychologists term ‘trans-diagnostic’ and a growing body of research suggests it can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders.
Self-criticism is believed to be the common link among these disorders. “The more self-critical you are, the more helpless, ineffective and unable you feel to be able to achieve your goals,” says Professor Wade. “You beat yourself into a state of learned helplessness.”
Worryingly, unhealthy self-criticism can begin in childhood and adolescence. One longitudinal study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found adolescents who were highly self-critical experienced feelings of ineffectiveness, which led to an increased risk of disordered eating.
Facts and figures
Researchers believe clinical perfectionism is on the rise in Australia, but further investigation is required.
About 25 per cent of adolescents are self-critical when their standards aren’t met, which Professor Wade says is consistent with figures that report about 30 per cent of people experience depression in their lifetime, 20 per cent of people have anxiety disorders and 20 per cent are affected by eating disorders.
Certain environments may also promote clinical perfectionism. “If you’re at a school where academic achievement is important and it’s very competitive, that may feed into a family that values achievement,” says Professor Wade. “Some people have professions where it is functional to be a little bit obsessive, such as building bridges and operating on people. You have to get the details right but your performance can decline if you are self-critical.”
Lowering your expectations
If you’re worried about your perfectionist tendencies, what can you do to be less perfect? “It’s good to look at the costs and benefits of self-criticism,” says Professor Wade.
“A lot of perfectionists are reluctant to give up perfectionism because they fear if they don’t criticise themselves they’ll become second rate and ordinary. People need to look at the downsides of that behaviour and how it’s impacting on the different areas of their life in order to weigh up whether it’s a strategy that’s working for them or not.”
Research consistently shows that criticism works to demotivate rather than motivate, which can actually take you further away from your goals. ‘Adaptive’ – or healthy – perfectionists, who are more likely to practise self-compassion than self-criticism, have similar high standards to clinical perfectionists but understand that absolute perfection is unattainable.
Instead of wallowing in self-criticism, they focus on learning from mistakes, trying to improve performance and achieving flexible goals. As such, adaptive perfectionists are at lower risk of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders.