Increasingly we strive for unreachable ideals in personal and public spheres – with damaging consequences from mental health problems to Brexit deadlock
14 August 2019
PERFECTIONISM is often admired and celebrated. The drive and athleticism of Serena Williams or Roger Federer on the tennis court; the poise and attention to detail of Judi Dench or Helen Mirren on stage and screen.
There’s no harm in celebrating great achievement. But not everyone can always be at the top of their game – and perfectionism as a pathological trait, the demanding of impossible standards from ourselves and others, is on the rise (see “The perfectionism trap: How to avoid burn out, anxiety and stress”). Psychologists point to a swirl of contributing and amplifying factors: the rise of social media and its stylised, cropped versions of other people’s lives, tumultuous job markets, an unpredictable economy, standardised school testing at an early age.
Impossible is a key word here. As a society, we are coy about perfectionism, identifying the trait in ourselves as a faux-modest way of signalling our conscientiousness or attention to detail. Yet we aren’t talking about striving for perfect in the hope of attaining good. For people with true perfectionism, for whom nothing short of impeccable is acceptable, success becomes ever harder to achieve, and failure so devastating that it is hardly worth trying at all.
That reality is what makes this upward trend so worrisome. Perfectionism can lead to mental health problems, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety and even suicide.
We all bear some responsibility to turn off the heat by recognising that no one is perfect and we have no right to expect anyone to be. That starts at the top, with our salacious delight when role models fall from grace – at the outbursts of Williams, for example. But it extends to all those around us as well, to family, friends and colleagues.
It isn’t just about our mental health. Perfectionism’s pernicious pathology increasingly extends to public life, too – just witness the inability of the sides in the UK’s Brexit debate to reach agreement. A word to the wise: unrealistic demands ultimately mean we are less likely to get things done at all, let alone done well.