Essay: Is being a perfectionist really a bad thing?

9 min

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One morning during lockdown, I logged on to Zoom for the virtual open morning of a school we were interested in for our then-two-year-old daughter. My husband and I huddled around my laptop as the headmistress introduced the school, a selective, fee-paying all-girls establishment that featured regularly in conversation at the nursery gates. I was primed to be impressed. But I wasn’t expecting to be startled and thrilled. What I heard sparked a curiosity that kept unspooling long after the details of the tennis courts and Juilliard links had faded.

In describing its ethos, the headmistress said that the school aimed to free high-achieving girls from perfectionism and the paralysis it can engender. My husband nodded mildly. My reaction, meanwhile, was visceral. My breath caught in my throat, as I felt a jolt of recognition and release. A jammed-shut window thrown open, sunshine flooded in.

After, I wondered why her words had had such an effect. My first thought was that for a headmistress to publicly decry perfectionism seemed unexpected, almost countercultural. At least, it was very different from the way girls were educated when I was at school, some 20 years ago. Back then, perfectionist tendencies were, if not actively encouraged, then certainly rewarded. And with good reason: standard education systems, where expectations are clear and there is often one right answer, incentivise such traits. Perfectionists often succeed at school. And later on, these same people may cite their perfectionism when asked about their “greatest weakness” in a job interview.

The positioning of a penchant for perfection as a flaw to prospective employers has become a joke, the classic “humblebrag”, a smug boast concealed as a concession. When I speak to Thomas Curran, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics and author of the forthcoming book The Perfection Trap, he describes perfectionism as society’s “favourite flaw”. While we don’t consider it an outright strength, he believes we nonetheless have a “begrudging admiration” for it. Curran argues that we tend to treat perfectionism as an “insignia of worth, the emblem of the successful.” He is one of a growing number of experts who considers this a serious problem, a “hidden epidemic” even, especially among young people in developed countries, where research has focused.

Fundamentally different from having high standards, perfectionism, the theory goes, holds people back instead of propelling them forward. Research suggests that perfectionists are intensely self-critical and unwilling to take risks for fear of failure or criticism, which can be devastating to their fragile self-image. Increasingly viewed as unhealthy and debilitating, perfectionism is correlated with a vulnerability to anxiety, depression, eating disorders and burnout.

Perfectionists don’t simply want to be perfect (if only it were that simple). Rather, they want to be deemed worthy. While typically associated with academic, sporting or professional achievement, perfectionism can apply in any sphere of life, including personal relationships. Perfectionists don’t realise, or have lost sight of, what every parent knows: that love is not earned.

Curran’s research shows that perfectionism is rising among young people in the UK, US and Canada at what he calls an “alarming” rate. By far the largest increase is seen in a specific variety called “socially prescribed perfectionism”, or the perceived need to be perfect in order for others to value you. Compared with other varieties (“self-oriented” and “other-oriented” perfectionism), this type also has the most significant correlation with serious mental illness. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising to hear an educator talk about dismantling it.

Yet my reaction to the headmistress’s words comprised more than surprise. I felt exhilarated. If my children could be free from perfectionism, could I be free from it too? Curran describes the condition as living under “a tyranny of ‘should’”, so for an authority figure — a headmistress, of all people — to advocate escaping it didn’t just feel powerful. It felt like permission.

It may not come as a surprise to know that I have entertained the possibility that I’m a perfectionist. The term has come up in 360-degree feedback at work, and in conversations with my husband at home. It’s been strongly implied by hairdressers tasked with achieving the exact kind of wave that I like. Its spectre was clear in the bemused expression of the postnatal physiotherapist from whom I kept demanding follow-up appointments, despite her insistence that I was fine. “The thing is,” she eventually told me, somewhat desperately, her palms upturned, “most people are looking for recovery, not perfection.” I have often been counselled with phrases like, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”.

While I never consciously aspired to be a perfectionist, I didn’t actively attempt to overcome these tendencies, partly because I assumed they were symptoms of an innate personality trait that I was stuck with, for better or worse. And partly, perhaps, because my feelings about perfectionism are more ambivalent than my initial response to the headmistress’s words might indicate.

Visiting the home of a high-powered friend a few years ago, I was surprised to find myself silently observing, “Oh, so she’s not a perfectionist, then.” Her home was beautiful, perfect even, but it was also finished in a way that mine would never be. To the casual observer, our flats would probably have looked much the same: I had also framed our wedding photos and hung prints on the walls. But I knew that my home could never be finished in that way, because I would never be able to accept it as the best I could do. I periodically printed photos, saved mementos and cut images out of magazines, then left them lying around, frustrating myself as well as my husband’s decluttering efforts and testing his patience. Vague artistic plans that I didn’t have time to realise haunted us benignly, while their would-be components lingered in a liminal state between the walls and the recycling bin.

That lingering leaves a residue, embodying a feeling that my home, my life, my personality could always be better. Viewed through a certain lens, there’s a sad wastefulness to that. Aren’t we supposed to believe that we are “enough”, faults and all? Switch the lens though and it’s life-affirming: a springlike hope that we, and the world, might at any time get better. Maybe perfectionism contains both.

© Kyle Ellingson

Not everyone believes that perfectionism is a scourge. Psychotherapist Katherine Morgan Schafler argues in The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control, published in January, that the trait has come to be demonised by a sexist culture.

In her view, “adaptive” or healthy perfectionism has been elbowed out of the discourse to pathologise women’s ambition and keep them in thrall to the idea that there’s something wrong with them.

Morgan Schafler’s argument is not so much that perfectionism is a predominantly female trait — although some studies suggest it is more prevalent in women and girls — but that the “push to curb [it]” has been directed mainly at women. “When Steve Jobs or Gordon Ramsay or James Cameron demand perfection, they’re exalted as geniuses in their respective fields,” she writes. This is seldom the case with female perfectionists, who are more often characterised as “difficult”.

A former on-site therapist at Google, Morgan Schafler’s aim is to inspire ambitious women to “reclaim their perfectionism”. She identifies five types of perfectionist, including the Classic (reliable, self-disciplined, presents “as if she’d purchased all her belongings that morning and started a brand-new pop-up life”), Parisian (a people-pleaser, someone who wants to be liked, and who wants it all to look effortless) and Messy (excited by new beginnings, “believes they can do it all without ever having to give anything up”). Morgan Schafler argues that every type has a path to harnessing the power of a potentially positive trait, one that society has conditioned women to believe they have to “manage” or recover from.

At first, I find the chatty tone of her book annoying and struggle to take it seriously. Soon, I can’t put it down. I feel energised, in the same way that I do by New Year’s resolutions. This feels like a strain of perfectionism I don’t want to let go of. I’m all the more convinced by her thesis when I take her quiz and am revealed, as I’m naturally hoping to be, as a Parisian perfectionist. More accurately, I’m tied between Parisian and the less glamorous-sounding Procrastinator Perfectionist. (The fact that I also score highly on Intense Perfectionist, which sounds slightly grim, I choose to ignore.)

The idea that perfectionism has a bright as well as a dark side intrigues me. While I’m fortunate enough not to have experienced the serious mental illnesses to which perfectionism has been linked, I do know what it’s like to feel oppressed by a crushing sense of expectation. At times, I’ve felt that everybody wants something from me that I’m not quite managing to deliver. It’s hard to break such cycles because the expectations are largely imagined. The solace that some find in the rhetorical question “What’s the worst that could happen?” has always mystified me, because for me, perceived failure feels catastrophic.

That’s clearly a sad, stressful and unsustainable way to live. But it’s by no means representative of my whole experience of life, it’s a sliver. I can also relate to something that sounds a lot like what Morgan Schafler might call the “dynamic energy” of healthy perfectionism, which is “charged, magnetic, brimming with infinite potentialities”. Sometimes I feel as if everything is flowing, and certain moments do shine in my mind as my version of perfect, in real time as well as in retrospect. ­Perhaps there’s an idealism associated with striving for a vision, a promised land that can never be reached but whose shimmering form on the horizon imbues the voyage with purpose, even magic.

Before having children, I wondered whether becoming a mother might dampen my desire to do anything else in the world, because the baby would somehow be enough. In fact, having children didn’t stop me from wanting to strive for the impossible. Rather, it exploded my sense of what the possible could be. Anything seemed possible, if they were. While living under a constant pressure to achieve it is unbearable, there may be something beautiful about believing in what we previously deemed impossible.

Curran is not convinced by this. For him, healthy perfectionism is “an oxymoron”. His research findings make him, like the headmistress, deeply concerned about perfectionism, especially in young people. He and his co-authors find that it has been rising steadily in college-age people in the US, Canada and the UK over the 25 years since researchers Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt developed a model for measuring it. The same period has also seen a rise in depression, mental illness and suicide ideation in young people, Curran argues.

Many academics and experts believe that changes in society over that time have created unprecedented pressures for this demographic. Social media engenders comparison and presents a mirage of perfection that can become the backdrop to young people’s lives. The “economic tribunal of metrics, ranking and league tables” that they face is increasingly arduous and starts, in some places, as soon as their education does. Added to this are the anxieties of helicopter parents whose fears of the alien online world their children inhabit, and the precarious economic climate they’ll graduate into, with rising rates of student debt and little hope of home ownership, are transmitted insidiously through no fault of the parents’ own. For Curran, this pressure intersects with perfectionism in sinister ways.

I ask him if the education system and to some extent the world is still set up to reward perfectionism. He believes that the countries he studied are wired not to reward it but to fuel it. Perfectionism stems from “deficit thinking”, he says, and companies, marketers and economic systems are incentivised to keep us feeling deficient. He sees social media as a dangerous tool for comparison that can further distort an already hazy sense of what might be “good enough”.

Although my Instagram feed often reads like a succession of self-compassion mantras — from “anything that costs you your peace is too expensive” to the catch-all “you’ve got this, mama” — Curran finds the “self-care” trend to be hollow and ultimately unhelpful. For the perfectionist, something intended as a respite, like daily meditation, can easily become another “should”.

In any case, perfectionism won’t be ameliorated, nor pressure alleviated, by telling people to practise self-care. Placing responsibility on the individual to solve problems whose roots are systemic is seen as a misguided and harmful approach. In her book Real Self Care, the American doctor Pooja Lakshmin accuses the wellness industry of focusing on the individual and ignoring the wider forces at play. Clearly, it’s the pressure itself, as well as the unhealthy responses to it, that needs to be mitigated. And unless we change what Curran sees as society’s fixation on growth, she doesn’t see the trend of rising perfectionism reversing.

Even if I overcome or “unleash”, to use Morgan Schafler’s term, my own tendencies and send my daughters to enlightened schools, it won’t change these underlying forces. And if I’m drawn to the idea that perfection can be powerful, maybe that’s a sign of my own privilege, both in socio-economic and generational terms. The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control is, after all, a book billed by its publisher as “a love letter to the ambitious, high-achieving, full-of-life clients who filled the author’s private practice”. It is not a practical guide for the young person striving yet still unable to buy a home or sustain a decent standard of living. For them, I suspect the notion of perfection feels anything but empowering.

The realities of adult life for younger generations must seem to confirm the perfectionist’s innermost suspicion: that whatever you do, it’s never enough. When I was at school, knowing how hard my classmates were studying felt like pressure. But I wasn’t being bombarded by images of them doing their homework in effortlessly stylish outfits at aesthetically pleasing desks, while also carrying on fulfilling social and romantic lives. The headmistress probably doesn’t care whether it’s called perfectionism or maladaptive perfectionism. Her aspiration is to free children from fear-driven paralysis, to ensure they never question their essential enough-ness.

Since that school open morning, I have come to see my perfectionist tendencies with a clearer eye. The dark sides and the light. And yet I can’t help believing that the moment may yet arrive when I’ll feel like curating a collage of my children’s christening cards, framing it and mounting it on the wall. To feel under pressure to do so would be oppressive and suffocating. But to rule out the possibility and capitulate to the clear-out would feel like a loss, a denial of some essential part of my humanity, my power to change. I’ll happily give up perfectionism, but I don’t want to give up hope.

Eimear Nolan is an Irish writer living in London and Dublin

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Source: Financial Times

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