When I was younger, I described myself as a perfectionist. For me, the mindset of perfection started young. It started small, when I began to make mountains out of molehills, basically trying to achieve perfection in even the tiny aspects of my life. At first, I was able to keep it all together, but slowly, the stress started to build, until I was perpetually on edge. From personal to professional, I wanted everything to be immaculate and picture-perfect.
I remember dismissing every achievement if it seemed like someone else did better than I did and sacrificing leisure time to try and outwork those around me. I spent nights riddled with anxiety and stress about how I could go about saving face.
When I began looking at those around me, I recognized that I was not alone in this thinking. I realized that perfectionism and the elusive chase of the ideal life had permeated many of my close friends and loved ones. I think that is why I often felt that whatever I was going through was “normal.”
I saw those around me become miserable chasing success, and once they accomplished what they set out to do, they still felt dissatisfied. I felt the same, and for each milestone I hit, I did not feel any less empty or any more successful. It seemed that we felt that we were all running in circles without making any positive momentum towards contentment.
Over time, therapy and self-reflection helped me to recognize that life doesn’t always have to be flawless and that there is beauty in imperfection. I noticed this trend with my clients as well, and I realized that many of their mental health issues stemmed from their unrealistic expectations of life.
Perfectionism and Its Implications
The perfectionist mindset is one that occurs when someone takes on the form of unreasonably high standards and engages in harsh self-criticism. This ability to present oneself as flawless can result from the pressure from academic institutions, parents, and employers.
In recent years, there has been a rise in competitive individualism, which is the mentality that competition brings out the best in people and that advancement is only offered to the most talented individuals. We embrace achievement and success in western society, which is one of the reasons why people love a good rags-to-riches story because it embodies the competitive spirit, and that has long been a cornerstone of free-market capitalism.
While there is nothing wrong with being competitive and striving to do your best, the implications for competitive individualism are staggering.
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In 2018, researchers from the University of Bath and York St. John University analyzed data from more than 40,000 American, Canadian, and British university students from 1989 to 2018. Their studies were published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin. What researchers have discovered are below
- The extent to which young people attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are highly self-critical has increased by 10%
- The extent to which young people impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate others critically has increased by 16%
- The extent to which young people perceive that their environment is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval has risen by 33%.
- 56% of adults who had committed suicide demonstrated an external need to be perfect.
The studies indicated that an increase in suicide, depression, and anxiety were linked to perfectionism and that as the workforce becomes more skilled and complex, these trends are likely to increase. As these trends continue upward, younger people seek to perfect themselves and their lifestyles, which is evident in many of the photos we scroll through on social media.
Strive to Be Good Enough, Not Perfect
Today, younger people have increased demands from their workplaces and their personal lives, so perfectionism has been the necessary tool to help them feel connected and feel a sense of self-worth.
Despite the illusion of perfection and its elusiveness, many remain fixated on achieving perfection. Embracing our imperfections or that life doesn’t go how we envisioned it makes us so uncomfortable that many seek to avoid it often denying the issue, mental health conditions, or hiding their vulnerabilities behind achievements. So how do we go about removing that “never enough,” mentality and set aside the perfection that makes us anxious?
Make Decisions Based On What Works For You
Many try to sprint through life when, in reality, it’s a marathon. It always seems that we’re racing to accomplish all our professional and personal goals as quickly as possible, which can be anxiety-inducing.
Many develop a sense of panic, and frustration when the ideal timetable we’ve created in our head doesn’t sync with our reality. So often we let our contentment be defined by our circumstances, leading us to feel that we are never enough. Who decided that there was a checklist of life milestones that needed to be accomplished for you to be successful and fulfilled?
Some of us will pick the wrong partner, career, or investments, to rush to that idealized life. Life is not standardized for everyone across the board. There is a sense of empowerment that develops when we embrace the gap between our actual lives and our aspirational lives. Goal-setting is not wrong, but make decisions based on what works for you, your life, and your context, because what works for one person might be antithetical for you.
Surrender Control and Unchain Yourself From the Need to Be Right
Think about all the times you’ve spent ruminating and replaying worrisome thoughts in your head. We often feel frustrated because our experience does not live up to our expectations. I’m sure that many of the things that we have been anxious about either never come to pass or are less intensive than we believed them to be. Many feel that constantly being in the driver’s seat is something that will give them immense power when in reality, the process of trying to be in charge of everything can not only be exhausting but burdensome.