The perfectionism trap
We’ve been trained as kids and we in turn teach our kids to strive for perfectionism in everything we do. This approach to life has helped many of us in our achievements individually as well as helped humanity progress collectively. However, as ever, the approach to perfectionism has its downside, especially in terms of mental health. Whilst the process of working towards a perfect outcome is what should drive fulfilment, in reality the actual outcome is what decides our mental state and as it turns out the outcome may not necessarily be perfect every single time. In this piece, Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst writes about how it is human to be striving for perfectionism but increasingly so is resulting in widespread dissatisfaction.
“As lockdown began last spring, I felt I was beginning to see many of my patients let go of the perfectionist demands they had placed upon themselves. Institutions and businesses adapted to home working, and many people saw a lull in the workload, a break from the constant surveillance and an opportunity to recalibrate their priorities. They embraced simple pleasures – baking, walking, reading, talking – and seemed optimistic about their relationships with their partners and families…..
…Having described herself as “pathologically conscientious” the first time we met, she [one of his patients] now took pleasure in producing work that was “barely up to scratch”.
The restrictions had opened her mind to all that she was missing: gardening, cycling with her partner, playing board games with her kids. But after about six weeks, I felt this new mood of indulgence wane and the old demands punitively re-emerge.
Like the virus itself, Polly’s perfectionism had adapted to the very conditions that had begun to neutralise it. She had thought that she could elude the surveillance and judgment of her line manager at home; now she was increasingly conscious of being noticed on Slack. She had found a new source of competitiveness in home-working: who could be more productive under these added pressures?
I began to notice some version of this shift in many of my patients: more stringent fitness regimes, more vigilant attention to their children’s home-schooling. They also became increasingly irritable and frustrated with partners, colleagues and, at times, me.
….The imperative towards perfection remains as potent and pervasive as ever. In an article in 2017 two British psychologists, Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, ascribed an exponential rise in perfectionism among the younger generation to the “increasingly demanding social and economic parameters” within which they struggled to make their lives.
…In “The Tyranny of Merit”, published in 2020, Sandel argues that meritocratic capitalism created a permanent state of competition within society, which corrodes solidarity and the notion of the “common good”. This system sustains an order of winners and losers, breeding “hubris and self-congratulation” among the former and chronically low self-worth among the latter.
In such a culture, young people are likely to grow dissatisfied both with what they have and who they are. Social media creates additional pressure to construct a perfect public image, exacerbating our feelings of inadequacy.
In the absence of intrinsic feelings of worth, a perfectionist tends to measure her own value against external measures: academic record, athletic prowess, popularity, professional achievement. When she falls short of expectations, she feels shame and humiliation.
This weight of society’s expectations is hardly a new phenomenon but it has become particularly draining over recent decades, perhaps because expectations themselves are so multifarious and contradictory. The perfectionism of the 1950s was rooted in the norms of mass culture and captured in famous advertising images of the ideal white American family that now seem self-satirising.
In that era, perfectionism meant seamlessly conforming to values, behaviour and appearance: chiselled confidence for men, demure graciousness for women. The perfectionist was under pressure to look like everyone else, only more so. The perfectionists of today, by contrast, feel an obligation to stand out through their idiosyncratic style and wit if they are to gain a foothold in the attention economy.”