It’s a recipe for being a miserable high achiever, or worse: some studies suggest it’s actually an obstacle to high achievement
According to a spate of recent reports, perfectionism is on the rise, especially among young people. This is a very bad thing – perfectionism is linked to anxiety, depression and many other problems – but the silver lining is that we’re no longer talking as if it were something to be proud of. For those coming of age in a winner-takes-all economy, where flawless success seems like the only viable alternative to penury, perfectionism is an entirely forgivable affliction. But it is an affliction. Those who still defend being a perfectionist seem to mean something like “being committed to constant improvement”. But that’s different. Perfectionism is the belief that anything short of the very best is a shameful failure. It’s a recipe for being a miserable high achiever, or worse: some studies suggest it’s actually an obstacle to high achievement.
One common response to perfectionism, drawing on stoicism and cognitive behavioural therapy, is to encourage the sufferer to see that her fears are exaggerated – that things won’t really be so bad if she flunks the exam, gets criticised for her work performance or lets the house get messy. (This is the logic in a wise suggestion from the psychologist Jessica Pryor: pick some “low stakes” area of life, like tidiness at home, and experiment with letting go of perfectionism there. Later, you can extend the approach to other parts of life.) Perfectionism means a life spent unhappily leaning into the future, because no matter how well you perform on any given challenge, there’s always the next one to stress about. So it makes sense to help people see that, when that next challenge arrives, an imperfect performance wouldn’t spell catastrophe.
The problem, though, is that this is still a future-oriented perspective. Yes, it helps you worry less about what’ll happen if you fail to meet your ultra-high standards next week, or next year. But it allows the sneaky perfectionist mind – I speak from experience – to keep secretly hoping that when that moment arrives, you’ll do perfectly after all. And so, arguably, a better antidote to perfectionism is to realise that it’s already too late. It’s not that your attempts to live perfectly might fail, but that they have failed: perfection is already a lost cause. From childhood until today, you’ve been failing to cultivate countless skills, nurture countless friendships, achieve countless goals – if only because attention is finite, so focusing on anything means not focusing on almost everything.
A few isolated “perfect” achievements may still be possible – a top grade in an exam, say – but only through being imperfect in other areas. And for most undertakings (from planning a holiday or buying a new outfit to marriage or parenthood), a perfect outcome was impossible from the outset: there are too many conflicting variables for you to hope to maximise them all. Of course, the fact that life is therefore inevitably a sort of failure applies to absolutely everyone, which makes it strange to call it a “failure” at all. If everyone’s guaranteed to miss the target, clearly the trouble is with the target.
Oh, and another thing about achieving perfection in the future: if you’re in your mid-20s or older, your brain and body are probably already in decline. So there’s that.
By Oliver Burkeman