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The Dangers of Perfectionism

Chad Prinsloo | Web Designer

Robbie Pearman  |  Counselling Psychologist

July 13 2021

People often describe themselves as perfectionists, almost like it’s a badge of honour. It’s like one of those things that many people are secretly proud of, whilst pretending like it is ‘area of development’, perhaps not realising how damaging it can be.

What happens when people try to live up to this label? Surely the downsides cannot be that bad? When we consider that as human beings, we are inherently imperfect, aiming for perfectionism becomes a never-ending pursuit that is always out of reach. This constant void between where we are and where we would like to be can create a fertile breeding ground for some dangerous mental health challenges for us. But how do we know whether we are truly at risk of circling down a spiral of perfectionism, or simply striving for excellence in a healthy way. The dangerous path of the perfectionist might start to resemble the following:

  • You set unrealistic goals for yourself, with unrealistic standards to uphold.
  • Even though not when not even you can realistically meet these goals, we become angry or resentful towards others whose standards fall short of this expectation, so you stop accepting help, stop delegating, and take on all the stress and responsibility for success yourself.
  • When you inevitably fail, you might become increasingly self-persecutory, which affects your confidence, self-worth and other aspects of your self-image.
  • With the stakes heightened, you take on the next challenge with even a greater need to perfect it. You start to see fault in everything, ignoring all the things you are getting right.

If these things are resonating with you, then you have possibly entered something of a perfectionism downward spiral, where each failure fuels more negative thoughts and self-talk and ultimately, leading to poor mental health outcomes.

People who experience this need for perfectionism, driving them to keep repeating this pattern over a long period of time, often experience a number of mental health challenges. These include things like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, lack of basic self-care practises like getting enough sleep, drinking enough water or getting sufficient exercise.

Where to from here?

The good news is that if you consider yourself a perfectionist, there are some amazing traits that are probably true about you that you could leverage. For example, you are probably an ambitious person; someone who values and strives for excellence (rather than perfection); someone who has a lot they can teach and is able to lead others to greater things, the list goes on. How can we channel these strengths in a positive direction?

1) Firstly, become more aware of identifying when you are leaning towards the perfectionism spiral: excessive fault finding (in ourselves and others); setting impossible goals; seeking approval from others for successes; procrastinating starting things you feel could lead to a failure, downplaying compliments etc.

2) Reframe success: start by setting more realistic goals.

3) Take time to celebrate your successes, and be deliberate about practicing gratitude for things that have gone right, and things that you value.

4) See failure differently: failure is a learning opportunity in the opinion of many a successful person. So, the path to excellence is in the lessons we take from those failures. Take time to constructively retrace the steps of a failure, in order to tweak our approach for next time.

5) Accept your humanity: we are imperfect creatures, we will make mistakes. Forgive yourself when they happen. Avoid comparisons with others, and rather practice forgiving others for their imperfections and mistakes. It has been said before but it bares repeating, comparing yourself through social media platforms to others tends to have poor outcomes for our own well-being. Compare your previous performance to your current performance, so that you may benefit in your future performance.

I’m a Counselling Psychologist situated in Blairgowrie, near the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, such as Rosebank and Sandton.

I work with individuals, couples, families, and small groups to address current challenges with a solution-focused approach. These challenges may include some more common complaints such as depression, and anxiety, or those trying to come to terms with trauma or bereavement.

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