Perfectionism is on the rise and appears to be taking a psychological toll. A recent study found that every generation of young adults since the late 1980s is more prone to perfectionism than the generation before. These findings are based on a meta-analysis of three decades worth of data on perfectionism among college-age students and were published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
- Socially-Prescribed Perfectionism: Perceiving excessive expectations of perfection from others.
- Self-Oriented Perfectionism: Imposing an irrational desire to be perfect upon oneself.
- Other-Oriented Perfectionism: Placing unrealistic standards of perfection on others.
Curran and Hill found that between 1989 and 2016, socially-prescribed perfectionism increased by a staggering 33 percent, other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16 percent, and self-oriented perfectionism increased by 10 percent.
Although this study was observational, the researchers hypothesise that the steady rise of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues among young people since the 1980s may be linked to the epidemic of perfectionism.
What Can We Do to Immunise Ourselves Against the Perfectionism Plague?
Self-compassion may be an antidote for perfectionism. A new Australian study reports that self-compassion counterbalances the link between maladaptive perfectionism and depression in both adolescents and adults. These findings were published February 21, 2018, in the journal PLoS ONE.
The authors sum up the main takeaway of this research: "Individuals with high levels of maladaptive perfectionism are less likely to experience depressive symptoms in the context of high self-compassion."
What Is the Difference Between Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism?
Having some degree of adaptive perfectionism is healthy if it motivates you to aim high and make a concerted effort to do your best when facing any given challenge. The process of pouring your heart into accomplishing something that pushes against your limits and is both challenging and rewarding feels good. Especially when you let go of a perfectionistic need to "win-at-all-costs" in order to feel extrinsically validated and worthy.
On the flip side, too much (maladaptive) perfectionism and excessive self-criticism often lead to a downward spiral of paralysing fear of failure and avoidance behaviors. This type of perfectionism perpetuates malcontent and doesn't make people feel good. In addition to being linked to depression, maladaptive perfectionism can make someone feel unworthy of love and belonging, which results in perceived social isolation.
Adaptive perfectionism is linked to optimising your human potential and helps to create a state of flow. The secret to creating what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “flow" is to pinpoint a sweet spot between boredom and anxiety in which your level of skill is perfectly matched to a degree of challenge that is engaging, but not overwhelming.
Flow states rely on fluctuating expectations of optimal performance based on real-time feedback of anxiety and boredom. If you are striving to achieve a challenge that is just barely within the grasp of your skill level — but still feels good — keep doing what you're doing. However, if you are striving to "succeed" perfectly at something that is genuinely too difficult and starts to induce high-anxiety, cut yourself some slack and lower the bar.
There is an important caveat: Too much self-compassion and falling into the habit of always cutting yourself slack (or throwing in the towel and feeling sorry for yourself) when the going gets tough can undermine your resilience and ability to cope with adversity.
If you always play it safe and never risk failure, you will stagnate. In order to keep growing as human beings, each of us needs to set realistic but challenging goals. And, we must keep nudging against our personal limits in order to improve and grow. Remember: If you are brave enough to give a daunting challenge the real college try, but fall flat on your face, who cares? You can always get up, dust yourself off, and try again.
A story of a professional athlete
As a professional athlete, I learned about the thin line between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism the hard way. For most of my early sports career, I expected my body to consistently perform at an unrealistic "perfect" level of peak performance. During this phase of being a triathlete, I had zero tolerance for imperfection. Luckily, my aerobic engine and physical stamina almost always kept up with the demands required for Ironman distances of running, biking, and swimming.
Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, when I started getting bored with Ironman-distance triathlons and decided to increase the degree of athletic challenge by doing longer, more extreme ultra-endurance events, my maladaptive perfectionism became a source of self-sabotage.
As a perfectionist who was determined to stick to a robotically-rigid training regimen, I ignored the warning signs of overtraining. This led to a colossal meltdown marked by a laundry list of injuries, burnout, subpar performance, feelings of worthlessness, dysphoria, and ultimately, a major depressive episode. Fortuitously, during this time period, Alanis Morissette released a song, “That I Would Be Good,” about embracing oneself despite appearing “less than” based on extrinsic values and societal norms.
As a maladaptive perfectionist, this song was an epiphany for me. I can still remember listening to "That I Would Be Good" for the first time on a factory-made cassette in my Walkman. It was a cold, gray, melancholy November day in 1998 that mirrored the mood of the song. I was walking home to my apartment from Tower Records in the East Village and thought my headphones or tape deck was malfunctioning because there is scratchy, low-level static and audible feedback throughout the entire studio track of "That I Would Be Good." I'd never heard a commercial recording with so many technical glitches and flaws. I thought to myself, "Wow. One of the sound engineers really goofed up!"
But, after listening to the lyrics, I realised that from an audiophile perspective, the imperfect sound quality was purposely included as a type of “wabi-sabi” to remind listeners that letting go of the need to fix every "flaw" actually allows the uniqueness of an individual piece of art, music, or human being to shine through. Isn't it ironic that Alanis Morissette opened my eyes to the ancient Japanese wisdom of “wabi-sabi” and the revelation that I could be good without being perfect?
Once the meaning of this song sunk in, I began practicing more self-compassion and let go of my maladaptive perfectionism. Notably, this is also the precise moment when my athletic career really began to take off. Once I silenced my inner critic and stopped constantly beating myself up for being less than perfect, joie de vivre and exuberance took over and became my prime driving force. I actually started having fun during races. Self-compassion can be a real game-changer.
For example, in 1999, I won the Triple Ironman (7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run; done nonstop) for the first of three years in a row. Then, in 2004, I broke a Guinness World Record by running 153.76-miles nonstop on a treadmill in 24 hours. To onlookers, these ridiculously extreme athletic feats may have appeared to be driven by Type-A, maniacal, and neurotic perfectionism. But, in fact, I was purposely laid back and had a devil-may-care, laissez-faire attitude about winning or losing high-stakes sports competitions at the zenith of my career. I credit this shift in mindset with my Alanis inspired discovery of self-compassion.
Self-acceptance and a carefree spirit were my secret sauce as an ultra-endurance athlete. More specifically, mastering the art of talking to myself in the third person using a gutsy — but also whimsical and kind of sardonic — tone of voice allowed me to compete in absurdly grueling ultra-distance races (like running 135-miles through Death Valley in July) without feeling psychologically burdened. My inner voice didn't tend to get panicky or take anything too seriously. This helped to maintain laughter and levity while traversing long distances for 24+ hours at a stretch.
Over the years, I've found that letting go of maladaptive perfectionism and embracing a sense of self-compassion facilitates grace under pressure in both sport and life. As an athlete, learning to practice more self-compassion improved both my mental health and sports performance by reducing maladaptive perfectionism. This anecdotal evidence based on my life experience corroborates the latest empirical evidence by Ferrari et al. on the ability of self-compassion to uncouple the link between depression and perfectionism.