Chelsea Ale, Ph.D.
Psychiatry & Psychology
Not measuring up to impossible standards? Tackle the perfection fixation
From Pinterest to Instagram, Facebook to LinkedIn, magazine ads to the good old holiday letter, people are bombarded with images of the perfect family, job, trip, figure, outfit and even kids' curated bento boxes. But this striving toward an unrealistic level of perfection may be making people less happy and productive.
Perfectionism — once seen as fairly positive — is finally getting attention for being a problem. Why? Because the combination of high personal standards, self-criticism and the sense of never quite measuring up can be toxic and damaging to people's overall mental health. A 2016 study of college students in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom showed a 50% increase — from 9% to 18% — in the quest for perfection in less than 30 years.
Changing views of perfectionism
In the psychology field, perfectionism is seen mostly as getting in people's way of being successful. In small doses can help, but when it's a persistent pattern, it can be paralyzing.
When the bar of perfection is impossibly high, it's much easier to either do nothing or do things 1,000%. Just by sheer math, that's unattainable. Setting this impossible expectation, either for yourself or for others, is a setup for burnout and failure.
Pitfalls of seeking the perfect 10
There's a dark side to perfectionism that strongly impacts people's physical and mental health. It's so normalized, and maybe even romanticized, that it's thought of as a part of being great. But at strong levels, perfectionism can reach a point where it's impairing people's ability to function on a day-to-day basis. It may be more similar to obsessive compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, and sometimes can even drive chronic pain and greater risk of heart disease.
Pressures to be the perfect parent
Social media is one influence amping up pressure on parents to be perfect. With people sharing only carefully chosen snippets and perfect images of their lives, it can seem like those are the examples to strive for. But fighting against those "shoulds" is a strong model that parents can give their children. If you truly value raising your kids to be flexible and have a healthy balance, then sometimes allowing them to wear their shirt backward or have food all over their face is stronger parenting than subscribing to the high bar of what we should and shouldn't be doing.
People can help others see that, too, by not always talking only about their successes, but also by talking more openly about the struggles. Being real and accepting with each other can help really promote a culture of reality rather than perfectionism.
Perfectionism's impact on kids
Mental health providers are seeing kids who are setting themselves up for burning out by high school — and sometimes even by middle school — because they're working so hard and burning the candle at both ends to be the perfect student, athlete, friend and more. The concept of moderation — figuring out what things people need to pour themselves into 100% and what things they just need to do OK on — is a skill some kids must be taught. Perfectionistic teens probably would benefit from getting a B. As a result, they'll see the world doesn't crumble and realize they can still be happy, even if everything isn't perfect.
Countering the push to be perfect
Flexibility is a good thing. Doing things differently or spontaneously, trying to roll with situations as they come, not always having a plan, and just changing things up from time to time, can be doable ways to counter perfectionism.
The flip side of perfectionism is the fear of not being good enough. As people start to face that fear, do things imperfectly and see the world keeps turning, it becomes easier to push back on perfectionism. Being afraid of failure and of not being the best works the same way. The more people face it, gradually they become more comfortable with showing and embracing the reality of their lives and not worrying so much about measuring up.
Chelsea Ale, Ph.D., is a clinical child psychologist in Psychiatry & Psychology in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Portions of this article were adapted from Dr. Ale’s interview with the Minneapolis StarTribune on Oct. 3, 2021.