Perfectionism Is On The Rise And It’s Killing Your Progress

A new study has revealed how perfectionism is increasing with time, and creating barriers to getting things done in all areas of life – here’s how to free yourself from the perfect trap.

Progress is a funny thing – we all want to do things better, have ever more amazing experiences and achieve more than before, otherwise how do we know we’re getting anywhere with life? Then we share our progress on social media, while always raising the bar, and seeing in merciless detail how others are too. The result is that we’ve have become painfully aware of how good something has to get before it’s perfect. So, what’s going on and how can we escape the perfectionist’s trap, which cripples our ability to actually get anything done?

The Perfectionism Storm ‘Recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves,’ say the authors of a study published at the end of 2017. The study published in the Psychological Bulletin crunched data from the last three decades of college students and found a linear rise in levels of perfectionism among 47,641 American, Canadian and British citizens.

The study defines self-oriented perfectionism as, ‘a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations,’ which it links to depression and early death. Added to this is multidimensional perfectionism, including that which people feel social forces place on them, and high expectations they have of others.

It’s good to be good but it can be very unhealthy to be perfect

The study’s authors say that economic meritocracy, social media and high academic standards have created a perfect storm of mental health-sapping perfectionism. It’s good to be good, but it seems it can be very unhealthy to be perfect. And the kicker is that perfectionism is irrational, so we’re often unaware that we’re being a perfectionist at all.

If It’s Worth Doing, Then It’s Worth Doing Badly The go-to motivational message of the perfectionist is: ‘If It’s Worth Doing, Then It’s Worth Doing Well’. But the opposite is also true: ‘If it’s Worth Doing, Then It’s Worth Doing Really Badly’. Whether it’s playing the guitar or doing a sport, your enjoyment isn’t necessarily tied into how well you do it, compared to others, or even yourself. If you are mindfully in the moment, enjoying the activity just for its own sake, then you’ll be actively de-stressing, and increasing your ability to recognise when you are being overly self-critical. And you’ll probably stick with it for longer, because you enjoy it – this often has the happy side effect of making you improve at it: win, win.

What’s Your Own Minimum Viable Product? Startup consultant Eric Riies has popularised the concept of MVP, or minimal viable product. Imagine a circle representing viable products produced by well funded, established companies and another circle representing minimum, low-quality products. If the circles overlap slightly then there will be a sweetspot where a minimum product has viability, enough to attract early adopters, in order to provide feedback for further development.

As productivity coach Alan Brown tells his clients, you can apply this approach to an email or task you’re delivering. Rather than obsessing about achieving a highly polished result, which may require more time than is realistic to spend on it, just get on with the task or first draft, so that you complete it before the deadline. This will allow feedback to be gathered and acted upon. It will also free up time to explore other opportunities, which would be missed otherwise.

Poke Social Media’s Roving Eye Social media behemoths such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat account for two in every five minutes we spend online, according to the GlobalWebIndex. If you regularly post updates on your life, representing your progress, then you’d have to have a pretty thin skin not to care what people think of them, and therefore you.

‘Exposure to others’ perfect self-representations within social media can intensify one’s own body image concerns and sense of social alienation,’ say the study’s authors. Go too deep down this rabbit hole and it can end up feeling like a digital Eye Of Sauron is judging your every move. If you start to feel like this then it’s time to take a digital detox – or just post pics of cats.

Lean into the lows, without judging yourself, and your mindset is open to learning lessons

Be Shameless To Free Yourself If you tend to look back on your work and are underwhelmed, thinking: ‘meh, if only I had spent a bit longer on it, it could have been perfect,’ then you were probably being a perfectionist when you put it together, which made you anxious. This anxiety colours how you view the finished article, making you more likely to feel you missed the mark. This generates shame, which is rocket fuel for the judging, self-critical troll in your head.

To break this cycle, try to be more shameless with your failures, as you see them. If you lean into the lows – without judging yourself – then your mindset is open to taking lessons from failure, rather than being paralysed by it. Who knows, you might even look back and suddenly realise your work was a progression on what you did before – you were just being too much of a perfectionist to see it…

Cut Your Peers A Break Another symptom of irrational perfectionism is having unrealistic expectations on those around you. The Psychological Bulletin study found that in those studied over the three decades there had been an increased tendency to: ‘zealously promote and protect their self-esteem by hostility and a projection of high standards onto others.’ Apparently, being hard on yourself makes you even harder on others, and less likely to give credit where it is due. So, the next time you start to judge your peers harshly, take a deep breath and find something positive to notice instead. You’ll be doing yourself a favour too.

WHAT NEXT? Think you need to escape the perfection trap? Check out Petra Kolber’s ‘Perfectionism Detox’ Ted Talk for more on how to take a step back…

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.

Follow the writer @Mattfitnessray