Perfectionism is a trap. Being perfect does not work! In our work with students we have known this for a long time and a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has provided further evidence. Perfection is ‘largely destructive’ and can lead to poor performance (Mail Online 1.8.15).
However, our high achieving, competitive and highly media savvy world is constantly bombarding us with images of others apparently ‘living the dream’ and achieving perfection – and we can feel inadequate if our own life doesn’t seem to match up.
This can be particuarly true at School, College and University. Often we simply assume that achieving perfection is what we should be aiming for and we don’t even stop to examine whether attempting to be perfect is actually helping us or not. It is simply the gold standard by which we compare and motivate ourselves.
What is Perfectionism?
Aiming high and going for that A* grade would be essentially OK if it didn’t drift into a dangerous belief system called Perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the belief that we must be ‘perfect’ at all times and in every way. (Centre for Clinical Interventions) Perfectionism can be described as having unrelenting high standards. It is often the ‘unrelenting’ aspect of this belief that can cause all the problems – it is when we basically start trying to be ‘perfect’ in everything that we do. It sounds tiring just writing it! And yet so many of us can fall into this trap.
Perfectionistic thinking leads us to believe that we should aim for and achieve perfect results in everything that we do: within class, in our grades, in our sport, in the way that we look, in our personal lives, in the people we associate with, in our relationships and in every other sphere of our life – and moreover, that we should make this look effortless – at all times!
Making Perfection look effortless
This last aspect of perfectionism is often forgotten, but it undoubtedly adds to the stress experienced and hikes up the vulnerability of anyone who is fully in the grip of this highly stressful and highly exhausting maladaptive belief system. That we should not only feel that we should be perfect – but also believe that we must make our efforts to be perfect look effortless, is truly exhausting. And on a very human level, it is alienating.
The New York Times in it’s article on student suicides quotes a Duke University report in which it’s female students say that they feel under pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”. As the article says these students feel that they have to be “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort.” ( New York Times.)
Perfectionism costs lives
How hard is this? It is at it’s core fundamentally unrealistic – and the pressure perfectionistic thinking places on students is costing lives. In the UK the rate of female student suicides increased by 50% over the five years leading up to 2011 (Office for National Statistics). Higher than in male students. Clearly something is happening within the education system that is putting students under pressure – maybe it is this pressure to be perfect – and to make it all look easy.
Perfectionism in short, is completely unreasonable, impossible to achieve and can only come at a huge personal cost. At times it costs a life.
Trying to be perfect actually prevents us developing some skills
Anyone attempting to achieve perfection in everything that they do will be maintaining some fundamental deficits – they will not be building their personal resilience to adversity. They may well be learning how to push themselves hard and how to override any feelings of tiredness or fatigue, but they will not be learning how to accept their own limitations, manage and adapt to them. They won’t be learning to listen to their feelings and their body and to give themselves what they need on occasion – and they certainly won’t be learning how to manage failure and the fear of failure.
As Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) put it “No matter – Try again – Fail again – Fail better”. These are life skills that we all need!
Making it all look easy “Penn Face”
The New York Times article refers to a concept known in the University of Pennsylvania as Penn Face. This is when students look happy and confident, even when they are struggling, feeling low or depressed. (Deconstructing the Penn Face) It’s great to hear that the University recognises this particular aspect of the pressure that students face and that they actively highlight it and make sure new students understand that we all struggle at times and just because someone is making it look easy – doesn’t mean that it is. The University actively encourages their students to recognise that often what the outside world sees is nothing like what is going on inside for individuals.
Why Perfectionism is a Trap
At Cambridge Academic Performance we work with many students who have become caught up in the Perfectionism Trap. It’s a way of thinking or a belief system that can creep up. Usually it needs a set of conditions to really set it in motion – often a perfect storm of conditions all coming together. External pressure from a highly competitive environment perhaps, combined with the habit of unfavourably comparing ourselves to others, can allow a sense of personal inadequacy to flourish.
Perfectionism is a coping strategy developed to make us feel better and to cope with the demands being placed upon us. It is highly alluring and sounds ‘perfect’ as a plan in it’s initial stages because we feel that we are getting our life back on track and that we have the inner resources to do well and motivate ourselves.
However, essentially we may have started down the path of believing “if I can just be ‘perfect’ then everything will be OK.” We believe that we will be loved, approved of, liked, respected etc – but at a cost – we just have to be perfect, all the time.
We lose sight of ourselves as an individual
However, this can prevent us from keeping a perspective on why we are making the choices we make. What is it we enjoy or find interesting? What motivates us naturally? Who are we and what is meaningful to us? What is our worth as a human being?
Perfectionism leads us away from these kinds of questions and values. We forget that as a friend we have many qualities that others value, beyond having the perfect skin or a superb social media presence. We forget what is individual about us. Our identity becomes eroded as we chase an ever more impossible, ’other orientated’ set of goals. We care more about how we look than who we are. And in that process we trample on ourselves and our needs.
We stop valuing our current achievements – and lose this ability all together
This is not all! Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Perfectionism is we actively practice the skill involved in negating or minimising our current achievements. Because we have ‘unrelenting high standards’, what often happens is we become very good at devaluing our current achievements. Once goals are achieved – they are minimised or instantly put aside while new targets get set. This has to happen in this way of thinking, because there is an underlying belief that if we don’t strive we will not feel motivated. The new target of course, is designed to help us achieve the ultimate life’s goal of ‘becoming perfect’. But can you see the trap?
We lose the ability to ever say “I did it and this is good enough”
The habit of ignoring current achievements becomes a lifelong habit. If we always ignore our current achievements, if we always believe that we can do better and that this achievement was a fluke, not important, not as good as others etc – then there will never be a day when we turn around and say “I did it and this is good enough!”
This is my point – Perfectionism is essentially a self-defeating trap. Others may look at you and be deeply impressed by your achievements, but the tragic fact will be – you will not be able to join them. The one person who won’t experience the enjoyment of all the efforts you are currently putting in – will be you. A life long habit of undermining yourself , minimising your attainments in order to further motivate yourself will be maintained. That is unless you begin the challenging process of learning to appreciate what you have done, not just the results, but the efforts. And do that Now. Today. And then again tomorrow.
Stepping out of the Trap is highly motivating
Many students that we support who are experiencing the Perfectionism Trap start to realise that actually valuing their own achievement today, right now, is a highly motivating experience. They can start to value their strengths and more to the point, build upon them. This has a huge impact on their academic and personal performance.
So enjoy your achievements. The perfection you see out there in the world – it’s a facade. It’s one dimensional. It’s not the whole story. Start to think about who you are. What you want and what makes you feel good and by following this path, new strategies and strengths will naturally emerge.
Ask yourself: Is this thinking actually helping me? Is it making me happier? Is it giving me what I want? Am I being effective? Is it helpful?
If you find yourself unable to have any down time, planning every minute of every day, even before you get up, looking at all your activities and aligning them with self-improving strategies and basically forgetting to have any fun, or relaxation or enjoyment, just for the sake of it – then you may be caught in the Perfection Trap.