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Perfectionism with Dr. Thomas Curran

Being a perfectionist is so much more than high standards and goal-setting—and it can severely effect mental health.

Heights
Heights
January 15, 2021
6 min read

Dr. Thomas Curran can spot a real perfectionist a mile off. As a psychologist and lecturer at LSE with a broad body of work on personality characteristics, Tom's recently turned his scientific approach to perfectionism: where it comes from, how it impacts our lives, and why we've recently seen a boom in cases.

So, how do you know if you’re a perfectionist? On the Heights Braincare podcast, Tom explains why it’s so much more than high standards and goal-setting. We explore how to read the signs to find out if you're a perfectionist, how perfectionism might lead to anxiety, the impact of deteriorating self-image on our mental health, and why everyone you interview for a job claims to have the same flaw.

Maybe if I demonstrate I'm willing to sacrifice areas of my life for success and the company that I'm going to work for then you're going to value me more.

The 3 types of perfectionism

Perfectionism is much more than being an over-striving, high-achieving workaholic. There are actually three distinct types of perfectionism:

1-  Self-orientated perfectionism—high self-set goals, excessive standards, self-criticism when they don’t meet those standards.

2 - Socially prescribed perfectionism—perceive that their culture, surroundings, and social environment are excessively demanding and that people are judgemental and punitive when they haven’t reached those high standards.

3-  Other orientated perfectionism—this is less common but is centred around the expectation of other people to be perfectionists and achieve very high standards. Other orientated perfectionists can be very harsh on others when they haven’t matched up to their standards.

Can perfectionism can be good?

There are certain aspects of our lives or outcomes that can benefit from a little bit of self-orientated perfectionism—Tom is careful to stress the “little bit”. But, the same cannot be said for socially prescribed perfectionism or other-orientated perfectionism. 

Perfectionistic behaviours in small doses can produce good performance outcomes—but if we go too far it can easily cross over into inverted or diminishing returns on your work and your life.

How perfectionism might lead to anxiety

The society we live in often touts perfectionism as a good trait up there with diligence, loyalty, and responsibility. Tom believes this is a dangerous fallacy, particularly in the UK's service-based economy, that can entice perfectionists into a self-reflective race to the bottom.

There’s a lot of data that shows the people high on the perfectionism scale also report higher levels of mental health difficulties.

“Perfectionism is really about perfecting the self," says Tom. "That's where we have to differentiate perfectionism from things like conscientiousness, flexibility, and diligence. It comes from this profound desire to solve and repair defects that we believe that we have.

“We go through the world needing to be approved of, which leads us to set excessively high standards because the only way we can guarantee approval is if we excel.

“Because the standards set are too high in the first place, we struggle to meet them. So we feel very anxious, uncomfortable, self-conscious, and self-critical, and then we overcompensate.”

Perfectionists then end up in a negative cycle of self-defeat, where they're setting ever-higher goals, failing to achieve them, criticising themselves and then setting ever-higher goals. This can lead to perfectionists suffering from more failures, and being subject to a lot of achievement difficulties—not only in work, but in their social and personal lives too. 

Not only does perfectionism put us into a cycle that increases failure and rejection, but also the impact of that failure and rejection on our sense of self-worth and our mental health is amplified by the very perfectionistic tendencies that are driving it in the first place.

How do you know if you’re a perfectionist?

Tom describes the difference between high-achievement and perfectionism as being the ability to dust yourself off after a failure and move on.

Trying, perseverance and diligence are all crucial to success. And, if you’re able to roll with the punches when things don't go quite so well, and try again, it's likely that you're not a perfectionist. 

But, if the moment you hit that setback—suddenly the whole world caves in. That’s a different story.

Over-generalising the event as a reflection on you, not the event itself is a warning sign, says Tom. 

“Engaging in harsh and punitive self-criticism is a very strong signature of someone that has perfectionistic tendencies. They're internalizing that setback and failure on the self rather than being able to step back and take into perspective.”

Tom’s top 3 takeaways on perfectionism

1- The antidote to self-criticism is self-compassion

“When I talk to people and particularly students about perfectionism, the one thing that I see all the time is harsh self-criticism.

Think about how you talk to your friends. When they've encountered a similar setback, apply those same rules to yourself. Being kind to yourself is so important.”

2- Use thought diaries to relabel and acknowledge negative cognitions

“When you feel like things are getting on top of you, you're struggling to cope or haven't got enough time or resource—reflect on those feelings and write them down. Don't try to push them down and repress them. Then on a scale of one to 10, rate how much you believe them to be true. Then use that to think about better ways to appraise a certain situation—maybe you pick out things that you can learn instead.”

3- Have the courage to be vulnerable

“Go about your life with courage. Be unafraid to show your vulnerable self, your real self with all your imperfections.

“This is the hardest one in our current culture because we're encouraged to put on a facade and go through life with a bit of a shield that demonstrates to other people that we're this idealized version of ourselves. But, pushing ourselves out of that, to say “this is who I am, these are my skills, abilities, and these are my chinks, flaws, and things that I need to improve on,” is really courageous.”

>Listen to the full Braincare podacst episode with Dr Thomas Curran on perfectionism here

>Want to know more about society and self-image? Check out our previous episode with Sophie Medlin on Aesthetics vs. Health.

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