Perfectionism and the pressures it brings can be a key factor in the development and maintenance of a number of mental illnesses, especially eating disorders. It’s time to better understand what it means and to get more realistic.
It’s a common enough word, a label that most people are proud to own.
“I’m a perfectionist, I just have to get it right…” “You’re such a perfectionist…”
It’s often used as a compliment for someone’s hard work and dilligence, or as a way of telling someone, jokingly, to just get on with something. But most of us, when we use the word ‘perfectionism/perfectionist’, don’t realise what it actually means and that there is a darker side to this usually shiny badge of honour.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines perfectionism as ‘the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection’. Many would argue that this a positive, healthy quality to have, especially in the work place or in school. And you can’t really argue with that: we all want to do our best, to be successful, to do a good job, to earn the praise of others. But how do you actually define perfection? Here a dictionary can’t help us. Objectively, ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist. How can it? Can anything really be perfect? I’m sure even if you’ve written an essay that got top marks, you’ve felt that you could have added just that bit more, or weren’t happy with a certain sentence somewhere.
‘Perfect’ doesn’t exist
OK, so for most people who might be labelled a perfectionist, it’s not an inherently bad thing. Maybe it puts more pressure on them than they need, but overall, trying to be the best you can is a positive thing – as long as you remain largely realistic and balanced in your outlook on life. It’s when perfectionism, the refusal to accept anything other than perfection, becomes a rule to constantly live by and measure yourself against that perfectionism becomes unhealthy and potentially dangerous.
There is a big difference between a healthy and helpful pursuit of excellence and an unhealthy and unhelpful striving for perfection. I’d argue that for most people, when they use the term perfectionist, they refer to a healthy pursuit of excellence: the best we can expect of ourselves given the circumstances. Striving for perfection, however, can have far reaching consequences.
There’s a big difference between the pursuit of excellence, and striving for perfection
Researches tend to identify three key aspects of unhealthy perfectionism:
- Relentless striving for demanding and unrealistic high standards.
- Judging your own self-worth based on your ability to strive for and achieve those high standards.
- Continuining to pursue those unrelenting standards despite the negative consequences.
Can you recognise any of these aspects in yourself? I think a lot of us can. And I bet a lot of us can also identify how those three elements can be extremely tiring, pressurising and intense to the point of being stressful and depressing. And the thing with perfectionism is that even if these unrealistically high standards are met, it tells you that it is still not good enough, that you should go further. The goal posts just keep moving and you never achieve ‘perfection’. How can you ever really be happy if you live like that? Such unrelenting standards lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction with life and with ourselves, guilt and shame. You begin to feel that you are not good enough, that you’re a failure: you’re self-worth and self-esteem plummet. This in turn can lead to social isolation, frustration, relationship problems, an overall sense of failure, guilt, stress, shame, and can feed into the development of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, OCD and eating disorders.
And that’s the point. Regardless of mental illness, perfectionism just isn’t good for our mental health in general. We are increasingly exposed to pressures all around us that put more and more pressure on us to be perfect. Social media is full of people posting their achievements, their ‘perfect’ holiday pics; full of adverts showing us how to be the ‘perfect’ person in how we look, in what we buy, in what we wear and how we behave. It’s no wonder then that the rates of depression and anxiety are increasing, especially amongst the younger Instagram and Facebook generation.
Perfectionism and Mental Illness
Perfectionism can stem from the way we live and see the world, revolving around deep-seated rules and assumptions that are inaccurate, inflexible and hugely damaging. Perfectionists live in a black and white world of shoulds and musts: a highly pressured environment in which your self worth is constantly weighed against your achievements (or supposed lack of). For example: ‘I must always try my hardest/ I should always be the best person I can be/ I cannot fail because people will think I am not good enough/ If I am not perfect, I am a failure…’
These rules and assumptions are very similar to those which can lie behind a number of mental illnesses, for example anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders.
Perfectionism leads to a vicious circle which reinforces the perfectionism and can lead to the development of severe mental illnesses. The unrelenting high standards can rarely be met, therefore you conclude that you are not good enough, that you’re a failure and therefore people will judge you and reject you. For many people, not meeting an unrealistic target might just mean that it is time to give up. But for perfectionists, it means that it is time to be even tougher on yourself, to try even harder. And even if the standard is achieved, perfectionists will often just see it as a fluke, or a sign that the bar hadn’t been set high enough in the first place.
The feelings of not being good enough and of failure can generate stress, guilt, shame, self-hatred. It is hard to underestimate how powerful guilt and shame are. They are often the root of many mental illnesses.
Perfectionism and Eating Disorders
There is a very strong correlation between perfectionism and eating disorders. That is not to say that everyone with perfectionistic traits is going to develop an eating disorder. Anorexia has been especially linked to a previous tendency towards perfectionism.
In fact, perfectionism can be seen as a central aspect of eating disorders like anorexia. I’ll use the example of anorexia most because that’s the type of disorder I am most familiar with.
Anorexia (just like other EDs) is a coping mechanism, a way to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings and situations and the world in general. Now, perfectionism can have two roles here. Perfectionism may have caused that person to need to find a coping mechanism in the first place, thus the development of the eating disorder, and it can maintain the disorder.
The constant feeling of inadequacy and failure, of shame and guilt, the constant pressure to be ‘perfect’ can be overwhelming. An eating disorder can offer an escape and an outlet from this in a number of ways. Firstly, the constant preocupation with food and weight leaves little room left to think about anything else, so those feelings and thoughts or situations you want to escape from are pushed into the background. Furthermore, the perfectionism can hone in on weight and eating and find something that it can achieve and therefore, those feelings of being a failure are less frequent if you continue to maintain at a low weight, or continue to lose weight, or go for a certain amount of time without eating. Rather than those feelings of shame and guilt, you get a sense of achievement.
In my own experience, I know that I used perfectionism as a coping mechanism for a long time in order to protect myself from my own feelings of inadequacy as a person: I believed I had to be perfect so that people wouldn’t see the ‘true me’. First, this was in my school work: nothing was ever good enough. Even if I got an A*, this was either just a fluke or a sign that I would have to keep up the pressure on myself so as not to drop the ball and therefore be judged and rejected as I feared. I also became a perfectionist in my relationships with other people: I had to be as nice, as good, as ‘perfect’ as possible so that I wouldn’t be rejected if they saw the bad person I believed I really was.
And with more independence at university, the perfectionism also took aim at money: I had to keep strict control of my finances to the point where if I spent more than £12 a week on food shopping I was a failure. And then, due to various changes in my life, the perfectionism turned on my weight and diet. I could only put healthy things inside me, or else I was a failure. I had to maintain or lose my weight, or I was a failure. I had to be slimmer, or I was a failure. Even as I became increasingly emaciated (not that I could see this, of course), I was still not good enough. And those feelings of shame and guilt and failure all fed further into the anorexia itself.
I’ve learned to be more realistic in my expectations of myself nowadays. I no longer listen to myself when I set unrealistic, inflexible standards. I try to be the best I can be in any given circumstance, but recognise that, just like everyone else, I make mistakes and I have off days, but that this does not make me a failure or a bad person.
Recovery from any eating disorder must involve a balancing of any perfectionist traits. Eating disorders feed off perfectionism and comparison with others. To beat them, you have to beat that little voice in your head telling you to always be perfect.
We have to be more balanced, more flexible, more compassionate in the way we judge ourselves and in our expectations of ourselves. Striving to be perfect only takes you further from true perfection: just being yourself. Pursue excellence, but don’t demand perfection.