April 26, 2021

Toxic Perfectionism & What it Does to our Mental Health.

Why do we wake up and hope that our days are perfect, and not just mediocre?

What is it that drives the human species toward perfection? Why do perfectionists hate criticism? Is it something that we are all cursed to live with? Why do we still talk about perfection as if it’s a bad thing?

To understand what perfection is, we must first define and demystify it. A basic psychological definition says, “Perfectionism is to hold an unrealistic ideal and demand that one’s behavior or appearance conform to it.” Notice that it is defined as a binary phenomenon in how someone relates to their own behavior and their expectations of others. It is a filter by which we all must measure up to.

Failure is not an option and is a sign of weakness, and if shown, it has to be hidden from the public eye at all costs. Let’s be clear: being detailed, wanting to be better, holding yourself accountable is not the same as toxic perfectionism.

Toxic perfectionism is the need to avoid mistakes as much as possible, judging others by the same criteria, and preventing interactions where we know we might fail.

In social psychology, we have defined perfectionism in three different ways: self-perfection, other-perfection, and socially-prescribed perfectionism. Sometimes, all three of these can work together in tandem. Self-criticism, negative self-talk, competitiveness, and even asking others for help can be other manifestations of perfectionism.

So, here are some examples of perfectionism: 

Unrealistic ideals. Holding unrealistic ideals—mixed with expectations that everyone will uphold to those—is a recipe for failure. The perfectionist has a tendency to demand that other people live up to their own unrealistic expectations. As a result, they become harridans, control freaks, rigid, and relentlessly demanding. Others view them as either reviled or irritable.

They bring you down. Crippling perfectionism has the potential to drag us down. At the end of any project or pursuit, it’s rare that a wayward perfectionist will be commended for a job well done. He or she may obsess so much over specific details that they fail to finish on time. To add, they’re no stranger to the feelings of failure, disappointment, and frustration. Too much, however, can lead to a severe case of depression.

Don’t do well with criticism. Hard-line perfectionists have a tendency to take all criticism to heart. Although it may not be intended, the perfectionist internalizes criticism as confirmation that they are so far from their ideal that they are worthless. While it takes strength to maintain a perfectionist lifestyle, it can also be self-defeating. It can cause serious damage to one’s self-esteem and social support networks.

Procrastination. They prolong everything around him or her until it’s “perfect.” Procrastination stops them from finishing (or beginning) a project. Procrastination keeps the perfectionist in progress. They say things like, “I’ll go to the gym to exercise, once I’ve found the right pair of gym shoes,” or, “I’ll start on that assignment when I’ve got the right tools.” The problem is the perfectionist never gets started because if the job can’t be done “right,” why do it at all? And, to add to this, they simply don’t know how to stop procrastinating.

One of the greatest myths of perfectionism is the invention of hustle culture. This is the emergence of the workplace ideology that people are not hustling hard enough if they are not trying to stretch themselves beyond what we’re capable of. It turns effort into a seemingly magic bullet and rubric that we all measure our levels of success by.

It has also had a large hand in contributing to mental health issues. Limitations can be a good thing. We need to begin romanticizing the fact that it’s okay to rest, take breaks, and opt into self-care routines.

Culture versus Evolution

What does evolution say about the cultural normalization of perfectionism? Evolution is ultimately about selection, not perfection. “No population or organism is perfectly adapted. The population or individual does not want or try to evolve, and natural selection cannot try to supply what an organism needs. Natural selection just selects among whatever variations exist in the population.”

What does this mean for perfection? It means we have created a culture where things like the imposter syndrome, body image issues, the perfect employee, the man of my dreams, and the perfect parent have never been part of our actual DNA, but have been accepted as a natural part of our social norms. We have made it almost impossible to ever make mistake, and even Darwin would disagree with this.

There are five core components that drive our desire toward cultural perfection: personal standards, concern over mistakes, parental expectations, doubting of actions, and organization. These all work together to set us all up to be like a god—a god with clay feet, where we try so hard to hide those clay feet from our fragile egos, others, and even our environment.

We ultimately think that letting someone down is the ultimate failure. There is no separation between the person or the failure—they are one and the same.

Deep down, we know this is not true. However, when the process of overidentifying with our mistakes becomes inseparable, the person we once identified with outside of that perfection no longer exists. A lot of these ideas are borrowed from ancient middle eastern myths that have had a hand in propagating people as fallen, dirty, and sinful.

We are not made to be perfect—we are made to be human.

“As perfectionists grow older, they appear to unravel. Their personalities become more neurotic (more prone to negative emotions like guilt, envy, and anxiety) and less conscientious (less organized, efficient, reliable, and disciplined).” Over time, perfectionism can also lead to eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. So, what can we do about this?

The Pratfall Effect

In behavioral science, there is a bias we refer to as the Pratfall Effect. In short, it’s the idea that we connect with people when they wear their mistakes on their sleeves. When they slip up, get it wrong, and are ultimately okay with it.

The Pratfall Effect states that people who are considered highly competent are found to be more likable when they perform an everyday blunder than those who don’t. The effect was first studied by social psychologist Elliot Aronson in 1966. Aronson speculated that people considered superior by others could become more attractive upon committing a small pratfall.

It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to get it wrong—you are not your mistakes.

In fact, let’s go one step further and illicit help from behavioral linguistics and reframe failure all together—you are not a failure, you are learning. The idea of failure props up the mythology of perfection.

In the world of the ancient Greeks, even the gods weren’t perfect, so why should we be?

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