Striving to excel is good, right? What about when that striving turns into beating yourself up if you don’t nail everything you do? What if that striving makes you set unrealistically demanding goals? And what if that striving consumes your ability to be proud of your accomplishments? These are the criteria that differentiates a desire to excel from perfectionism.
Many people (including myself at one stage) would perceive perfectionism as a good thing. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be perfect all the time?
But my perspective changed when I heard clinical psychologist Talya Rabinovitz tell Triple J’ Hack that when we see perfectionism as a good thing we’re confusing it with a different idea: the desire to excel. For example, you may have a desire to excel and get great marks at university to go on and get a good job. That’s awesome, you want to achieve, but you are realistic about your self- expectations and aren’t too harsh on yourself.
Perfectionism would be obsessing over every assessment in every subject; beating yourself up if you don’t get over 90% and feeling unworthy if you don’t achieve those goals. Talya Rabinovitz appropriately describes this perfectionism as hyper-striving.
Understanding this made me realise that I am on the perfectionism spectrum, which would explain the self-imposed pressures that lead to the academic burnout I discussed in my last article. But I am not alone, with one in four Australian adolescents being self-critical when standards are not met.
“Perfect is the enemy of the good” – Voltaire 18th Century
Voltaire hit the nail on the head, with a growing number of researchers agreeing that perfectionism can never be a good thing. In fact, even clinical perfectionists themselves reported negative effects on emotions, self-esteem and negative impacts towards others. Interpersonal relationships are especially affected when unrealistic standards are placed on others, in addition to a fear of not being able to meet others expectations.
Unfortunately perfectionism goes beyond unrealistic academic goals for some people. In fact, perfectionism has been identified as a driving factor for many individuals with eating disorders due to the need to maintain complete control over weight. This is an alarming possibility for the 1.6% of boys and 3.4% of girls who experience clinical perfectionism most or all of the time.
The Goldman Dilemma – would you dope?
You may be starting to come to terms with the extent of perfectionism in some people, but how far do you think they are willing to go? Bob Goldman turned this curiosity into a 13-year study in the 1980s. He asked professional athletes, a group known for high rates of perfectionism, if they would take a substance that guaranteed sporting glory, but killed them in 5 years. The results? More than half said yes.
The Perfect Illusion
Charly Haversat, a retried professional athlete and recovering perfectionist, explains that the ‘Nirvana Fallacy’ is a false assumption of a perfect solution. So if perfectionism is an illusion, why is it that 50% of elite athletes were willing to die in exchange for that one perfect performance? This obsession with achieving perfectionism at any cost comes back to our non elite-athlete clinical perfectionists, with majority reporting they would rather keep their perfectionism than change it.
Perfectionism is clearly an unhealthy obsession that is probably affecting more people than you think. So next time you assimilate perfectionism with positive attributes, have a think about whether you are confusing this idea with a desire to excel.
But hey, what’s the point stressing about being perfect anyway? I mean, according to Jim Carey we’re all just non-existent matter.