The Pros and Cons of Being a Perfectionist
Setting the Standard: What is Perfectionism?
As we wrote in our previous article ‘How Much of a Perfectionist are you?’, perfectionists tend to feel that nothing they ever do is good enough; that they need to work unrelentingly in a bid to better themselves, or else there’ll be negative consequences. If a perfectionist feels he/she is not meeting the high standards they hold for themselves, they will often experience distress or inner unrest which can affect negatively their mood or result in anxiety.
With this description perfectionism sounds like a really unpleasant, unwanted trait. So why do so many of us personify it? Well, as behavioural psychology tells us, everything we do is done because we believe it will be of benefit to us (or it has benefitted us somehow in the past) - and perfectionism is no different. The perfectionistic thoughts described above breed by definition an intense drive to perform well, and their continued presence in our lives can be put down to the successes and external validation (who doesn’t love compliments?!) this increased drive once brought us.
Introducing: Your Inner Critic
From an early age we are taught to repeatedly re-do writing exercises until we’ve mastered them, or tweak homework assignments until the teacher thinks they are just right. Think about when you were learning to write in kindergarten; you had to tediously re-write the same alphabet letter over and over and over again, until the teacher finally said it reached some sort of arbitrary aesthetic standard.
Well, this is just the problem: standards are often arbitrary, and when we become adults there is nobody there anymore to tell us when we’ve achieved them. This means that our idea of standards becomes undefined and theoretically limitless.
So how can we know when we are ever good enough?
To put it plainly: we don’t. We have to set the standard mark on our own. To do this, we resort to internalizing the standards of our early role-models (teachers, parents, grandparents), and subconsciously guess what they’d have thought of our performance or achievements or behaviour. We hear a little voice inside telling us what we should be doing, how well we should be doing it, who we should be doing it with, etc.
This little voice is called the ‘inner critic’ and the intensity and strictness of this little kick-in-the-butt is what determines our perfectionism levels. When the critic sets us high demands - and we feel uneasy or sad because we’ve failed to live up to these demands - perfectionism is born!
Perfectionism: The good and the not so good
Like I said before, perfectionism has its advantages; it persists within us for some beneficial reason. Likely because the unrelenting drive hallmarking perfectionism has previously bred success and helped us avoid potential failures in the past.
For that same reason, perfectionistic traits are at the core of many of the world’s most successful people; athletes, businessmen, actors, musicians, artists – you’ll find they often are some of the biggest perfectionists out there.
Without the uneasy feeling of falling below standards, these kinds of people would never have striven to better themselves and likely would never have made it to the top of their respective fields. But, just as perfectionism is a mutual trait in success, so is the psychological distress often brought with it; mental health issues are also rampant among the elite.
VIPs: Very Important Perfectionists
Kurt Cobain (lead-singer of 90s rock band Nirvana) is a high-profile example of one such case. Since his death, Mr. Cobain’s battles with depression and addiction have been well-documented, and recently his band’s manager made public that Kurt had suffered psychologically from the distress of failing to meet his own artistic demands and ideologies. This may seem a bizarre concept to many of us, considering Mr. Cobain was one of the most highly acclaimed song-writers and performers of his time. But this fact highlights how it’s the internal critic that matters most, irrespective of the plaudits of those around us. The artistic standards Mr. Cobains’s inner critic set for him were the crux of Nirvana’s surge to fame, but unfortunately it seems that it was unrelenting. If his manager’s words speak true, then it seems that that same critic chastised Kurt for not being good enough – no matter how much fame and glory he attained.
As a second example of the psychological turmoil perfectionism can bring, it was reported recently by The Daily Telegraph that mental health problems are soaring among elite sports stars, and particularly among Olympic athletes. These athletes’ demanding inner critic may very well have been a driving factor in their dedication to their training and their motivation for sporting transcendence, but in equal measure, it may also be responsible for some psychological distress once the critics’ standards come to exceed the athletes’ own physical limits. Just take a look at the uptrend in performance-enhancing drug-use and we can see these athletes’ desperate attempt to keep up with their critic’s demands.
And what about us Average Joes?
The point here is that perfectionism is conducive to achievement, but also - if you let the critic take over - it can have negative psychological and general life consequences as well, which can be counterproductive toward your overall goals. It’s not just celebrities and sports stars who show high levels of perfectionism; it’s also really common among the general population (and that rate is growing). Just as with Kurt Cobain and the Olympic athletes, our perfectionism gives us the urge to develop, improve, and succeed at whatever it is that matters to us. It drives us to go to get an education, to endure those late-night study sessions, to go get a job, to develop ourselves on a personal level and to provide for, and take care of, our family. These are all really good things, let’s not forget that. The problem with perfectionism, though, is that it represents a more punitive inner critic; a louder voice with higher demands.
Imagine for a moment a student whose inner critic tells them that they should get themselves a university degree. So long as this student keeps her head above water and passes all her exams, she should be happy as can be (theoretically at least!).
Now, imagine a student who’s a bit more of a perfectionist. His inner critic tells him that he too should get himself a college degree, but that he must do so by graduating cum laude and getting straight A’s in every exam. Should this student find himself in a situation where he’s just about passing his exams with the minimum grade, he is going to experience some distress or anxiety or discontentment, despite performing just as well as his happy-go-lucky classmate. Sure, he might be more likely to eventually excel and get into a high-profile job, but will his critic be satisfied with that? Or will it continue to smother the lad throughout his career?
Perfectionistic thoughts shape our behaviour
The negative emotions experienced when we don’t appease our inner critic are so unpleasant that we tend to change our behaviour to make sure it won’t happen again. An example of this could be Olympic athletes who engage in performance-enhancing drug-use to ensure their performances match their standards. Okay, we laypeople might not have such radical resources at our disposal – so what do we do instead? Well, a variety of things really.
Finding balance again
Fewer close relationships, less leisure time, rejecting our morals, lack of sleep; these don’t seem like the best route to happiness.
Maybe we would be better off distancing ourselves from the critic a little bit. Using its presence as a little kick in the backside when we need it, while letting him know that failure is okay; that we don’t have to be the prettiest, the smartest, the richest, or the most successful to get by in life.
We all grew up hearing the phrase ‘nobody’s perfect’.
Maybe it’s time we passed this message on to the critic. We can thank the critic for its existence and make the most of it, using it to stay motivated when we need it, but we don’t need it keep it so close that we feel smothered and unhappy.
It’s all about locating the critic and being able to recognize when it’s harming you or when it’s helping you out.
Then, we can work on finding a healthy distance at which to hold it.
Written by Robert Carr, M.Sc.
Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE.