Tired of pursuing “perfect”? Why perfectionism weighs you down
Be honest: Are you a perfectionist or a good-enoughist? I’ll be the first to admit I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to perfect the image I present to the world.
And who can blame us. After all, who doesn’t, at least sometimes, wish for at least a little perfection – the perfect body, the perfect relationship, the perfect career and perfect, well-behaved children? Having (and managing) it all without ever breaking a sweat? The “perfect” life is, well, perfect, devoid of any blemishes – the wobbles, the mistakes, the bumps and the cracks of ordinary life.
Striving for “perfect”, however, means double-checking and triple-checking. It means worrying, fussing, agonising, nagging, and sometimes yelling. And it’s exhausting, isn’t it? Yet we get sucked in, time and time again. Some of us even pride ourselves on being perfectionists. It all boils down to one very simple reason: being perfect keeps us safe.
Being “perfect”: The 20-tonne shield we carry around
Because if you appear to be perfect, no one really knows about all that other stuff going on underneath the surface. All those things we don’t want people to know about: the struggles, the failures, the not-quite-holding-it-all-togetherness. All the things that truly prevent you from being seen, and enabling you to be your authentic self and live a whole-hearted life.
Sociologist Dr Brené Brown explains perfectionism as saying to yourself, “If I look perfect, live perfect or work perfect then I can avoid or minimise criticism, blame and ridicule.” She refers to it as the “20-tonne shield” we carry around each day.
Being “perfect” may keep us “safe” but it only serves to disconnect us from our friends and family, and alienates us from the rest of the world. “No one gets me” is what I hear regularly in my office from struggling perfectionists, and that’s because they never let anyone in in the first place.
Indeed, there’s nothing quite like the loneliness of a perfectionist. Trust me, I know it well. In my 20s I was a young expat living in Tokyo – an incredible, vibrant city rife with opportunities. I managed to progress to a management position, but I was everything I shouldn’t have been: Young, female and certainly not Japanese. To make matters worse, I had been hired from the top and had replaced a middle-aged Japanese man. If you know anything about Japanese culture, you’ll know this didn’t go down well with my colleagues to say the least; I was seen as a threat. So I did the only thing I knew how: I loaded myself up with shields to protect anybody from seeing my flaws. I told myself that if I could do an exceptional job, if I could be perfect, I would be accepted and I would belong.
The pressure I put on myself was insane. I worked day and night, and worked myself into the ground. I caught typhoid fever whilst travelling abroad and returned to work well before I should have, even wearing padded clothing to hide my ill health and all the weight I had lost. I was solely focused on covering up the cracks and showing the team that “I could do it all”. My heavy shield of perfectionism didn’t just weigh me down. It almost killed me.
And then there was the marvellous yet totally metamorphic experience of having my first child some years later. Kids are wonderful, but totally unpredictable. For someone who took pride in her career, I struggled under the weight of trying to “do it all” and look “picture perfect” while surviving on little sleep. Back then, perfectionism was a shield that protected me from all the turmoil (or so I thought).
“Perfect” in the city
I know I’m not alone here. I believe, and have seen firsthand, how perfectionism thrives in a fast-paced, global city like Hong Kong. I regularly see adults in my office exhausted from “keeping up appearances”. They will show compassion for others, but rarely towards themselves. It is often when they see their own children struggle with the same issues that it really hits home. Children see, children do.
Increasingly, however, I think it is our teens who suffer most from the weight of perfectionism. In today’s social-media ridden environment – where everything is snapped, then edited and filtered to look perfect before it’s tagged and open to the scrutiny of likes and comments – the opportunity for genuine connections, the type that requires you to put yourself out there, is nothing short of petrifying. Teens so desperately want to belong, and yet fitting in requires the right angle, the right pose, the right hashtag, and saying the right thing. You can have a thousand friends or followers, but be the loneliest person on the planet. The public breakdown of Australian teen and “instagram sensation” Essena O’Neil last year is a good insight into the alternate universe our children and living in these days, and the pressures they are under. And I believe this carefully created virtual world is seeing our teens burdened with heavy “perfectionism” shields simply to survive.
The straitjacket of “What will people think?”
But the problem with perfectionism, especially for a growing young adult, is not just that it’s a self-destructive belief system, it ultimately doesn’t give you room to fail. As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, failure is a crucial ingredient in a child’s progression and education.
As an adult being a perfectionist has dire consequences for our happiness and sense of wellbeing, as it ultimately leads us away from living a truly wholehearted life – the type where we live and love fully and courageously. In her book Daring Greatly, Brown explains that in all her years of data collecting and interviewing inspiring people, she has never once come across a person attributing “joy, success or wholeheartedness to being perfect”. She goes on:
“In fact, what I’ve heard over and over throughout the years is one clear message: “The most valuable and important things in my life came to me when I cultivated the courage to be vulnerable, imperfect and self-compassionate.” Perfectionism is not the path that leads to our greatest gifts and to our sense of purpose; it’s the hazardous detour.”
As Brown explains, “You can’t do anything brave if you’re wearing the strait jacket of ‘what will people think?’”
The link to mental disorders and depression
Research is also confirming the devastatingly destructive outcomes of perfectionism to our mental health. In a paper published in 2014 in the Review of General Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association, researchers found that perfectionism may lead to crippling anxiety or depression and may even be an overlooked risk factor for suicide.
Other research has also correlated perfectionism with eating disorders and other mental health problems. A common issue that we see in teenagers in Hong Kong is self-harm, such as “cutting”. As gruesome as it sounds, it involves kids cutting themselves – not fatal or serious wounds, but enough to “release” themselves from the pressure they face. It is an unhealthy, debilitating practice which hinders a child’s growth and progression. A study published in 2012 found the incidence of self-harm among Hong Kong high schoolers to be as high as 32.7 per cent.
Where does perfectionism begin, and what can we do about it?
So where did the quest for perfect begin, and how can we stop it? The seeds are planted early, and come from various sources: school, family, society and the media, just to name a few. Mostly, perfectionists are raised on praise, given approval for outcomes, from grades, to manners, to rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance and sports. But somewhere along the way that praise translates into a dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish, and how well I accomplish it.
Next week, I’ll share my insights on how and where perfectionism begins to fester. I’ll also explain how perfectionism can actually be a positive force for change, and how you can perfectionist-proof yourself and your family. Stay tuned!
Justine Campbell leverages her experience as a positive psychology practitioner in Hong Kong with Mindquest Group (www.mindquestgroup.com). Amongst the solutions-focused interventions she uses, these include the Daring Way™ and Rising Strong™ curriculum from Dr Brené Brown to help people of all ages overcome a perfectionist mindset and embrace their potential. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.