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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Buckland

A perfect storm: 8 signs of toxic perfectionism, causes and ways to break free from the cycle

Updated: Feb 12

The definition of perfection in the Cambridge dictionary describes it as: “the state of being complete and correct in every way,” which reflects the common societal perception that perfection is a worthy pursuit. After all, “Striving for perfection” and “practice makes perfect” sound like positive aspirations, right? In some cases, yes, but what happens when perfectionism becomes toxic?


In psychology, perfectionism has a much darker side; it’s linked to a long list of clinical issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicide[i]. A meta-study carried out by Tom Curran, and Andrew Hill showed the prevalence of perfectionist tendencies of undergraduates from 1989 through to 2016 in Canadian, American, and the UK is increasing from generation to generation[ii]. Another alarming trend can be observed in a 2018 NHS survey, reporting a 48% increase in emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression) in 5-15-year-old students between 2004 and 2017[iii]. Could this be a coincidence or a contributing factor to the rise of mental ill health.


"48% increase in emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression) in 5-15-year-old students between 2004 and 2017"

Although there are varying definitions, toxic perfectionism stems from these core elements: always striving to meet extremely high standards for yourself and/or others, judging worth based on achievement, and continuing to aim for perfection despite the detrimental impact it has[iv]. Curren and Hill’s research found three cultural shifts that have influenced the rise of toxic perfectionism.



 

3 cultural shifts giving rise to toxic perfectionism


1.Increased desire for individuality

In the 1960s and 1970s, social movements championed individuality, breaking free from societal norms. Businesses capitalised on this by using media to evoke emotions, like desire and insecurity, which influenced buying habits. Today, airbrushed images in magazines set unrealistic beauty and masculinity standards, leading to feelings of inadequacy. Advertisements offer solutions, perpetuating the cycle of insecurity and consumerism[v]. These environmental influences keep consumers in cycles of feeling inadequate and buying in an attempt to meet ever-changing high standards of perfection to feel worthy, reduce stress and feelings of inferiority.


2. Ranking for 'success'

Changes in the education system post-World War II aimed to identify top talent and offer equal opportunities. However, this meritocratic system increased competition and pressure, affecting student wellbeing. Testing is seen in education as an ineffective measure of ability, but immense focus on high grades can lead to perfectionism. The pressure doesn't just affect students; it also impacts parents who feel judged by societal standards.[vi; vii]. Perfectionism develops in response to feelings of inadequacy when not meeting demanding expectations from themselves of their environments that can lead to stress, anxiety and mental health difficulties.


3.Pressure on parents causing anxiety.

Living in a connected world where idealised snippets are shared, parents often feel immense pressure to meet impossibly high standards. A survey found that over 90% of mothers and 85% of fathers feel judged by strangers and other parents [viii]. This anxiety extends to various aspects of life, including appearances, home living, and children's performance in school. The societal link between a person's value and their children's achievements intensifies the focus on parenting styles.



"Over 90% of mothers and 85% of fathers feel judged by strangers and other people"


Reading this, if you think you’ve been affected by perfectionist parenting or may even have these tendencies yourself, be kind to yourself. Perfectionism is a natural response to challenging environmental conditions to which we are all exposed. You are not to blame for societal changes that influence behaviour passed from generation to generation, but we do have the power to recognise it and and the power to make a difference.


8 signs of toxic perfectionism:

  1. Highly self-critical even if something is completed to a good enough standard, it will create stress and anxiety because only high standards are acceptable with perfectionism.

  2. Tasks take a longer to complete because they must be perfect. Even daily tasks such as writing emails may be reread and written many times before sending.

  3. Making mistakes causes extreme stress or anxiety- high achievement is linked to self-worth, so mistakes can feel like a failure.

  4. Procrastination or avoidance- fear of failure can make starting a task challenging. Even when a task begins, someone with perfectionism may give up quickly to avoid this fear.

  5. Difficulty making decisions- due to fear of being negatively judged or negative consequences like making mistakes, criticism, etc

  6. Impatience- when self-worth comes from achieving a goal alone, striving to meet the goal quicker seeks to alleviate feelings of low self-worth.

  7. Difficulty receiving criticism even if it’s constructive- receiving critical feedback is perceived as a mistake, which can trigger fears of failure and low self-worth.

  8. Craving praise and recognition- seeking to repair feelings of low self-worth from external sources.


Ways to break free from cycles of perfection


Talking to someone can really help. If you are affected by anything explored in this article and would like to talk more, please contact WellBe for a free, no obligation 20 minute consultation. Or find out about our training to boost mental health in the workplace.


Some more great tips below:





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Topics we support our clients with include self-esteem, confidence, anger, grief and loss, sleep issues, anxiety, depression, OCD, workplace conflicts, imposter syndrome, perfectionism, social isolation, communication skills, boundaries, coping with change, resilience-building, mindfulness, body image, career transitions, financial stress, parenting challenges, caregiver stress, trauma and PTSD, balancing work and personal life, loneliness and isolation, emotion and nervous system regulation, assertiveness training, procrastination and motivation, positive psychology interventions, stress management techniques, relaxation exercises, conflict resolution skills, building healthy relationships, enhancing emotional a, and much awareness and much more.

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[i] Limburg K, Watson HJ, Hagger MS, Egan SJ. The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology: A Meta-Analysis. J Clin Psychol. 2017 Oct;73(10):1301-1326. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22435. Epub 2016 Dec 27. PMID: 28026869. [ii] Curran, T., & Hill, A. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138 [iii] NHS Digital, https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2017/2017 (accessed 03/05/2021). [iv] Centre for Clinical Interventions, https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/-/media/CCI/Mental-Health-Professionals/Perfectionism/Perfectionism---Information-Sheets/Perfectionism-Information-Sheet---01---What-is-Perfectionism.pdf (accessed 19/05/2021 [v] Emily Robinson, Camilla Schofield, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Natalie Thomlinson, Telling Stories about Post-war Britain: Popular Individualism and the ‘Crisis’ of the 1970s, Twentieth Century British History, Volume 28, Issue 2, June 2017, Pages 268–304, https://doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwx006 [vi] The political Quarterly, https://politicalquarterly.blog/2020/06/15/the-illusion-of-meritocracy-damages-young-people-and-sanctions-inequality/ (accessed 10/05/2021) [vii] Curran, T., & Hill, A. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138 [viii] Zero to Three, Early Connections Last a Lifetime, https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1424-national-parentsurvey-overview-and-key-insights (accessed 18/05/21)

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