According to Professor Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches the most popular course ever in Harvard history, perfectionism is a leading cause of unhappiness. The pursuit of perfection is a no-win situation. Pursuing unattainable goals, constantly comparing ourselves to others, or to what “should “ be, sets us up for unproductive blaming of self or others. Rather than moving on, we remain enmeshed in negativity. And guess what? according to research, perfectionism is on the rise.
Psychologists Curran and Hill (2017) describe three dimensions of perfectionism;
- self-oriented – coming from pressure we put on ourselves
- other-oriented-more demanding and unrealistic expectations of others
- Socially-prescribed: from demands or standards we perceive as imposed by others.
All three dimensions are increasing, but the socially prescribed variety is rising twice as fast as the other two, not surprising, given that social media give us countless opportunities for comparison. It also has the strongest relationship to the rising wave of mental ill health eg. Anxiety, depression, loneliness, body dysmorphia , suicide ideation, especially for young people, which was the focus WHO 2017 special report.
This research also ties in with the findings of Jean Twenge , an intergenerational researcher focusing on what she calls igen ie young people who are growing up now with the ipad and digital media. Her findings show that the more hours young people spend on social media, the more depression, anxiety,and loneliness, with comparison of self to “idealized” others a likely cause (Jean Twenge, 2017).
The perfection ideal of course is not limited to young people. It reaches into all facets of our lives: we must be successful in our multiple roles such as career, parent, partner, lover, homemaker, carer of mother/father, contributor to the community and be physically fit, in great shape etc-the list is endless.
So what can we do to stem this rising tide?
Ben-Shahar recommends that we become more realistic and accepting of ourselves. When we compare, we are in the opposite of a mindful state: we are not appreciating the present, and we become self-critical compared to some ideal. Its great to have goals, but we must enjoy the scenery on the way, and view setbacks or failures as part of the journey. In short, we can adopt more of a growth mind-set, become what he calls an “Optimalist”. Optimalists have high goals too, but they also make the best of what they have and where they are now. They recognise that excellence is not the same as perfection.
Recognize we have lost our sense of perspective
Neuroscience now shows us, that when we make what we experience as a mistake or failure, the brain’s alarm, the amygdala goes off like a house alarm, and the “noise” of the emotions that sweep through us cuts us off from the more analytic part of the brain, so we lose our sense of proportion and become obsessed with the failure.
We can practice some CBT.
Put the situation in perspective : will it really matter in the long run? Will you even remember it in ten years time?
Reframe the “failure”. As Thomas Edison, the great inventor put it “ I have not failed . I have just tried 10,000 things that didn’t work.”Or Einstein : “The person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new”.
Perhaps we could replace this perfectionism with the revolutionary concept of “good enough”, first put forward by Winnicott in those less competitive forties?
Mindfulness and Self Compassion
We can start by being aware of the negative feeling flooding through us, and by reminding ourselves that this is a temporary state. Is it one we want to attach ourselves to, or could we let it drift by, like a cloud in the sky, and refuse to engage?
The research on Self Compassion, an essential component of mindfulness, shows that those high in self compassion are less likely to compare themselves to others, and are more optimistic. So practicing loving kindness, directed towards yourself, is really helpful, especially when you make a “mistake”.
So it is good to take a few minutes to detach, to focus calmly on your breath, to make loving and accepting affirmations to yourself. When a sense of calmness comes back, you can begin to remind yourself of other aspects of yourself that you treasure, and of your own essential goodness. In short, you can begin to appreciate yourself, and be grateful for all the good things you have in your life.
At a deeper level, zen and yoga philosophy recognize the existence of our two selves, the personality, the ego, the sum of our previous conditioning, and the true or authentic self. We can recognize that the striving for perfection, the comparative thinking, the constant driving of ourselves on, is coming from the ego, which is always trying to boost itself up. Our true self, our true nature is already perfect and has its own movement and direction that operates in an effortless way. As we reduce the noise coming from the “monkey chatter” and relax the demands of the “over-contracted personality” (as William James puts it) , we connect more with this real Self, which of course is the ultimate purpose of mindfulness.
by Margaret Forde, Chartered Psychologist (PsSI), Accredited Holistic Psychotherapist(IAHP), Registered Yoga Teacher (YA) . “Take the Steps” Mindfulness and Wellbeing course.
Tal Ben-Shaham (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect Mc Graw Hill
Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2017, December 28). Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta- Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138
Neff, K.D.,Rude Kristin S.S., Kirkpatrick (August 2007) An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits, Journal of Research in Personality Vol 41, Issue 4, pages 908-916.
World Health Organisation Report 2014 Preventing Suicide: a global imperative.
Twenge, J.M., Joiner. T.E., Rogers M.L., Martin, G.N.(2017) Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates among U.S Adoloescents after 2010 and Links to New Media Screen Time. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617723376