We are encouraged since childhood to strive to “be the best,” shoot for A+’s, go for the gold, and, most importantly, avoid making mistakes at all costs. The result is a set up for those who value and strive for excellence. Perfectionism is often at the root of depression, anxiety and negative self-image. Psychological science has begun to unravel why perfectionistic standards are correlated with so many psychological and physical health problems.
The problem with perfectionism is not that the perfectionist expectations are too high, but that they are unrealistic. Research has demonstrated that perfectionists underestimate how long it will take to realize a desired goal and how difficult it will be. As a result, when the goal takes longer and is more difficult than expected, the perfectionist assumes that this is due to a personal failing rather than unrealistic expectations. This is described beautifully in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8pti-Swh_E
Angela Duckworth and other social scientists have demonstrated how perseverance is much more important than perfectionism when pursuing goals. Making and expecting to make mistakes is a critical part of the path toward mastery and excellence. By avoiding making mistakes, perfectionists interfere with their progress toward meeting their goals and cultivating their abilities. Duckworth has a terrific Ted Talk on this: https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance
Perfectionism is on the rise. A recent meta-analysis (Curran and Hill, 2018) finds that undergraduates today are significantly more perfectionistic than students from 1990 to 2010. Despite the media reports of the younger generations being more entitled and less motivated, the research shows that high school and college students are growing up in a world of photo-shopped images and social media that leads to unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. For more on this: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/well/family/more-college-students-seem-to-be-majoring-in-perfectionism.html and https://hbr.org/2018/01/perfectionism-is-increasing-and-thats-not-good-news
Perfectionism can be hard to address in a culture that encourages and idealizes it. Perfectionistic people will resist the idea that they are perfectionistic because they see themselves as “underachievers” who are unable to meet their unrealistic standards. Perfectionists mistake unrealistic standards for high standards, and are not able to get satisfaction from their efforts. This can often culminate in fear of failure and procrastination, leading the perfectionist further away from their goals and reinforcing their self-critical thoughts. This video provides an excellent overview of the causes and consequences of procrastination: https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/natureandcausesofprocrastination/
If you or someone in your life struggle with perfectionism, get informed and get help if needed. These are some resources that I find particularly helpful when I am working with individuals who struggle with perfectionistic goals and expectations:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbtflLkVv4E — Good Enough is Good Enough