• Where does perfectionism come from?

  • Perfectionism has been linked to depression, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts

  • 4 ways you can overcome the downsides of perfectionism

We’re living through an epidemic of perfectionism. Especially among the young. Students are suffering higher levels of mental health issues than ever before and study after study concludes that millennials are especially prone to high levels of perfectionism and low levels of self-satisfaction.

Part of the problem is greater pressure than ever before to get top grades, secure a top job and achieve a salary that might enable you to pay off your student loan and get a toenail on the property ladder. The culture at large and platforms like Instagram and Snapchat in particular up the ante, encouraging a need to look fabulous, have hundreds of friends and post regularly on your stellar social life and world-wide travels.

There’s such a focus on trying to look good that feeling good suffers. Research has found high levels of perfectionism correlate with eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and depression. None of which feel anything like perfect.

There’s nothing wrong with having high standards and taking pride in doing things well

Perfectionistic tendencies can make you good at things. It’s all a matter of degree. If putting on a kilo, getting a pass not a distinction or being criticised by your boss feels like the end of the world then your perfectionism could do with softening.

Moreover, mistakes are how we learn. If you won’t let yourself mess up occasionally your life will to have to be very circumscribed and it’s unlikely you’ll get to where you want to be.

How do you become a ‘recovering perfectionist’?

According to research, two factors that are associated with depressive perfectionism are high self-criticism and negative reactions to criticism from outside. So…

  • Re-frame criticism as ‘feedback’ and be open to it. Actually, no one’s perfect. It’s the human condition to be flawed. And anyway one person’s perfect can be another’s ‘not quite right’. If you’re starting out in a new profession, job or relationship, you can’t expect to get everything right first time. You need to learn - about the job or the person. Practice being ‘non-defensive’ towards criticism and negative feedback. Saying something like ‘Thanks, I’ll think about that’ can be astonishingly effective in shutting people up. But react defensively and they may get angry prompting, perhaps, even worse ‘criticism’.

  • Tone down your self-criticism. We all have an inner critical voice – what Sigmund Freud called the ‘superego’ – and the harsher it is the more likely you are to get depressed. Try to listen to the way you talk to yourself and catch yourself being horrible or unrealistic. This process can really speed up with the help of a counsellor or therapist.

  • Indulge in some self-analysis. We can’t change anything about ourselves if we don’t realise we’re doing it. Awareness is all. Ask friends for feedback about your attitude to your own imperfections. You might be surprised by the answers. If it feels hurtful, it’s a chance to develop a thicker skin around criticism.

  • Practice the art of being kind to yourself. Perfectionists usually drive themselves in unkind, unsympathetic ways. The burgeoning area of ‘self-compassion’ offers tools to help in the form of books, videos, guided meditations and the like. Google it.

Further reading

Can you afford not to find the right therapist?

Success and self-compassion

Does psychotherapy really help?

Ditch the diet: why not invest in mental wellbeing

This article was originally published as part of welldoing.org's partnership with Health Unlocked