Perfectionism.

I believe everyone has had a form of this in someway, whether it be getting the best grades at school, wanting to be the best at everything you do in life, or being the MVP on your team.

I for one am very hard on myself, and always have been. The last few months I have been extremely hard on myself, and almost feel like I have gone nowhere. If this is you to, know that you are not alone. There are thousands of people around the world working towards the perfect life, the perfect children, the perfect career, the perfect relationship, the perfect instagram ready life. If you really stop to think about this, no one is flawless, and being perfect is a completely subjective concept that we all try to live up to, but this is in fact impossible.

There is increasing research into this topic of perfectionism and it is showing that this can not only be really bad for our wellbeing but also have a huge impact on our mental health. This in particular is exactly what I have been experiencing myself the last few months. I have been knocking myself down for not having my TTG blood levels down, for not healing my gut by now, for still having symptoms appearing 3.5 years after my diagnosis of celiac disease. But not just that, I’ve been kicking myself for not having my life figured out by now, or not really knowing what it is that I’m trying to accomplish in life. When really if I take a step back and clearly think about all of this, none of it can be accomplished over night and it all takes time.

There are five strands of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism,  other-oriented perfectionism, overt perfectionism, and covert perfectionism.

Self-Oriented Perfectionism: this is the kind of perfectionism that boils up from within, you set really high goals which then leads to harsh self criticism when you have not met those high standards.

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism: it is not just about what comes from within but also from what is directed towards us. There are expectations in the social environment that people in your life may have set standards in the way that they see you. This can be the people who are close to us but also the general environment that we live in, people can be very judgmental when we have not reached the standards that they perceive us to have.

Other-Oriented Perfectionism: This is the strand of perfectionism that is projected onto others. They expect other people to be perfect and are highly critical of those who fail to meet their impossibly high expectations. Saying things like, “I expect you to be perfect, I expect you to live up to and hold excessively high standards, and when you haven’t I will be critical.” 

Overt Perfectionism: Overt perfectionists have a very strong preference for order and show increased anxiety when they don’t have order around them. They tend to be opinionated and like to be right and often avoid activities that they cannot do well or don’t understand. I suspect that this type of perfectionism is linked to having a fixed mindset – the belief that your abilities (e.g., intelligence, athleticism, creativity, etc.) are fixed or pre-determined and cannot be developed. Overt perfectionists fear failure and do everything they can to prevent it by being in control.

Covert Perfectionism: Covert perfectionists are “closeted” perfectionists and can sometimes be hard to identify because their actions don’t always match the perfectionistic thoughts in their head. Covert perfectionists tend to have low expectations of those around them and will outwardly say they prefer being average or laid back, yet internally they secretly want to succeed. They may underachieve to avoid any pressure to succeed or competition with those who may be better at an activity.

What is the link between social media and perfectionism?

Scientists data shows that the “Socially Prescribed Perfectionism” can be the most damaging. It is this idea that others and the environment around us expects us to be perfect. This can come into the idea around social media, most people show the good that is happening in their world rather then the days that they are sick or not as productive. When we do this it can give us a sense that people have excessive amounts of expectations weighing on us, and peoples judgement and approval are dependent on us meeting those standards. When we haven’t met those standards we feel like we have let people down, we feel humiliation, embarrassment, and shame. This can be very damaging because even if we do live up to those expectations we feel are placed upon us,  we don’t feel satisfaction and we feel the better we do the better we are expected to do. This can cause a sense of self defeat.

Clinical numbers have been increasing in this exact type of perfectionism and may be linked to the rise of social media popularity. A master clinician by the name of Karen Horney, talked very persuasively about how perfectionism boils up from an inner conflict between an actual and idealized self. This culture teaches us that there is an ideal life but at the same time makes us feel miserable for not quite being able to attain it. It’s this conflict that springs perfectionist tendencies, a need and desire to be perfect and project perfection onto other people. There is a lot to be said in this view point for what is occurring today because in the 1950’s, consumerism was just taking off but now we are in a completely new culture and era. Social media has put those neurotic conflicts on a completely different level. This has elevated social comparison and an idea that perfectionism is projected towards us 24/7 through our social media as something that is normal, attainable, and desirable. We aspire to these ideas of perfectionism but sometimes we cannot quite live up to it. As a consequence we feel a lot of conflict and negative emotions, and to cope with them we adopt perfectionist tendencies because it goes back to the cycle of self defeat. In our eyes, if we are perfect or project perfection, people will value us, people will approve of us, we will get likes and followers within social media and therefore feel better about ourselves. However, this is the problem, if we are using social media to help our self esteem, then this is the wrong reason to use social media and this may be why scientists see more perfectionist tendencies.

How do we change this?

Social media being a big part of the world today it is more important now then ever to tone down the perfectionist tendencies that may arise with the increasing use of social media on a daily basis. So how can we stop this perfectionism and enjoy social media as a platform to connect rather then show off our “perfect” lives?

Understanding that we feel the way we do because of how culture is. This will take a lot of weight off our stresses and anxieties. Because this teaches us that the way other people are living their lives does not reflect on anything we have done wrong but actually that there is a broader context to those feelings and that we operate in a society that actively creates them. For example, the beauty industry selling us products “that can improve our lives” and makes us assume that we “need” to improve our lives and that somehow, we are incomplete in the first place. So understanding that we live in a culture that can make us feel miserable can help to take the weight off our mental state.

  1. Focus on the process of learning and growth within ourselves. If we focus on the growth and development of our lives, the outcomes will naturally come, because the learning process suggests that if we continue to develop that the learning process will follow. 
  2. Self compassion. It is really crucial for us to go easy on ourselves when we may have slipped up. We will always make a mistake or not perform as well as we did the other day then beat ourselves up for not being perfect. Instead of saying negative thoughts about it, recognize when those intrusive negative thoughts are starting to come in. Then try swapping the negative thoughts with positive and more constructive thoughts of kindness and self compassion. Think about it, how would you speak to a friend or family member in the same experience? You would rationalize with them and tell them it’s not the end of the world, and say things like keep your head down and keep learning. However, we do not apply these same rules to ourselves. Self compassion is one way we can silence that inner critic. 
  3. Finding something that you are passionate about. Finding your “purpose” in life can help to sway perfectionism in a way that you can focus in on your one thing. But do not let this be your identity and your only sense of well being. Have your passions, but stay in check with the other important things in your life like your health, family, exercise, friends, other hobbies and interests.

Perfectionism has a way of taking over our lives sometimes, but there are ways to recognize it and change our mindset on it. Accept yourself for who you are and use this to improve your wellbeing. In a chaotic world, life will often defeat us. But that is okay, failure is not weakness. Let’s celebrate the joys and beauty of imperfection, as a normal and natural part of everyday living.

References:

https://www.verywellmind.com/horneys-list-of-neurotic-needs-2795949

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/253643875_Self-control_mediates_the_link_between_perfectionism_and_stress

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