For a growing number of women, perfectionism is becoming less of an attribute and more of an affliction. Could the quest for perfection be making you miserable?

What is a perfectionist?

“A perfectionist is defined as striving for flawlessness, and having high standards for performance accompanied by excessively critical self-evaluation. Dr. Kirsty Miller explains.

“It can be split into three different subtypes: self-oriented, where we impose high standards on ourselves, socially-prescribed, where we feel others expect us to be perfect and other oriented, where we place high standards on others.”

There a number of reasons that might cause a person to become a perfectionist. Dr Kirsty reveals. “Perfectionism is  a personality trait. Firstly, we can inherit it from our parents in the same way as we might inherit physical characteristics, such as height. Secondly, we may also inherit this characteristic from out parents through watching their behaviour. If we see parents being tough on themselves, we may assume it is normal behaviour and grow up doing the same. Parental responses to the child can also be a factor, as such anxious and controlling parenting can make children concerned about making mistakes. Problems can arise when children link self-worth to achievement.

Cutting grass with scissors

Perfectionism – could the desire to be the best actually be holding you back from being happy?
Image: Shutterstock

Struggling to maintain incredibly high standards whilst being self-critical can be detrimental to our mental wellbeing. Dr Kirsty explains, “If a person feels that even their best efforts are not good enough, it can potentially lead to feelings of depression, anxiety and stress.”

Perfectionism is a growing problem

A study by Thomas Curran (University of Bath) and Andrew Hill (York St. John University), compared perfectionism over recent generations and discovered that the problem is growing. It’s easy to see why. This year documents the first complete decade of Instagram, with 25 million people in the UK now using the site. Dr Kirsty believes there is a link between perfectionism and social networking. She said. “Social media allows users to create a perfect public image, which intensifies body image concerns and feelings of social isolation.”

“Societal influences have played a role in raising levels of perfectionism. Increases in individualism, competitiveness and materialism can lead to greater pressure to be seen to be perfect in all aspects of life. Social media, which allows users to create a perfect public image, which can intensify body image concerns and feelings of social isolation.”

Perfectionism can begin in childhood

Research by Girl Guiding UK, found girls as young as seven felt under pressure to be perfect.

Reshma Raujani, Founder and CEO of non-profit organisation, Girls Who Code, said. “Girls are taught to play it safe – get all ‘As’. Boys on the other hand are taught to play rough, swing high. Men are habituated to take risks by the time those boys become adults, whether asking to take someone on a date, or negotiating a raise. We are raising girls to be perfect, and our boys to be brave.”

Dr Carol Dwek, studied the difference in how both sexes coped with academic pressure. Girls were encouraged to be clever or ‘good’. Boys received the same accolades for ‘trying hard’, she discovered. The result was girls were more risk adverse. They were reluctant to put their hand up in class in case they were wrong and  more likely to give up if they didn’t succeed the first time. Worryingly, the higher the IQ, the less likely a girl was to put her hand up for fear of failure. .

An internal survey by Hewlett Packard, showed that when it comes to applying for a job, a man will apply if he meets just 60 per cent of the criteria, whilst women would only apply if they met 100 per cent.

So how do you overcome the pressure of perfectionism?

Check out our advice below on ways to channel perfectionist tendencies positively.

Set realistic goals

Perfectionists tend to set unrealistic goals with impossibly high standards. Give yourself plenty of time and be realistic about what you can do in the time that you have. Setting impossibly high standards often means the level of effort isn’t relative to the end goal.

Be brave

Someone with perfectionist tendencies doesn’t like to be out of their comfort zone. But by pushing outside that zone, you are leaving yourself open to learning.

Let it go

If things don’t go to plan a perfectionist can experience frustration. You cannot control every single situation, try to accept that some things should not be in your control.

Identify triggers

A downside to being a perfectionist is not believing you are truly capable. They like to assure themselves that whatever comes their way they can deal with. If you find yourself questioning your capabilities try to work out what makes you feel like that and reduce your exposure to it.

Re-programme negativity

Perfectionists often have a highly critical inner voice telling them they are not good enough. If you hear a negative voice in your head, re-programme it. List the things you are good at, or have been successful at to change your mindset. Recognise that you have put in measured time and effort to achieve your goals.

See it through someone else’s eyes

High standards and high expectations are perfectionist traits. Imagine how a friend would react in your scenario. If your response is different it might be an indication your expectations are too high.

Don’t fear failure

Failure allows you to collect evidence as to what might work next time. Humans make mistakes – it’s how we know what to do better next time. Nobody likes to be wrong but, it’s important that we all admit failure because every mistake we make allows us to grow and learn.

Your worth is not what you’ve achieved

Do not link self-worth with your life achievements. Try to appreciated that you are more what you’ve achieved in life. Your friends and family don’t love you because you have a great job, they love you for being you – faults and all.

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