Your Need To Be Perfect Could Be Hurting Your Mental Health, According To Science

Here's how to overcome it

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If you had asked me to describe myself in one word five or even 10 years ago, I’d easily say “perfectionist.”

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I was that person who spent an extra hour or so obsessively double-checking and re-writing papers just because the words didn’t “flow” a certain way after reading it over… and over. I really struggled through a creative writing class because I never saw constructive criticism as something that should help me, I just saw it as a sign that I was a big failure.

When it came to school, work, and internships, I just needed to be seen as the picture-perfect model student, employee, or intern. It was all-consuming.

Having a perfectionist’s mentality isn’t just limited to school or work. If you have an obsessive desire to be perfect in any aspect of your life (i.e. your physical appearance or on social media), you might be a perfectionist.

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As a new study conducted by the American Psychological Association found, more college students today are striving for perfection than ever before. If that rings true for you, unfortunately, it could be taking a huge toll on your mental health.

The study, which was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, analyzed questionnaire responses from over 40,000 college students from the late 1980s to 2016.

Participants were measured for three types of perfectionism: self-oriented (“an irrational desire to be perfect”), socially prescribed (“perceiving excessive expectations from others”), and other-oriented (“placing unrealistic standards on others”).

Overall, young adults today have significantly higher scores for each form of perfectionism than previous generations. In fact, between 1989 and 2016, the self-oriented score increased by 10 percent, the socially prescribed score increased by 33 percent, and other-oriented increased by 16 percent. So clearly one major factor in all of this is how we compare ourselves to those around us.

Where your need to be perfect really comes from

Researchers believe many factors contribute to this generation’s need to be perfect, such as having ambitious careers goals or wanting to achieve higher levels of education. They also believe social media (no surprise) is probably the biggest contributing factor to why many young people push themselves to be a certain way.

But according to Becky Siden, a psychotherapist who specializes in treating perfectionism, it goes a little deeper than that.

“Perfectionism stems from fear,” Siden tells AwesomenessTV.  “It protects us from being seen. It’s a way of thinking and feeling that says, ‘If I look perfect I can avoid feelings of shame and judgement.’ It’s the fear that the world will see you for who you truly are, and you won’t measure up to the standard. It’s different than wanting to do your best and working towards being the best you can be.”

How it can hurt you

I never really recognized my need to be perfect as something damaging to my mental health. I just assumed I took criticism or negative feedback very personally, even though I had a tendency to replay those comments over and over in my mind until I received positive validations. I also told myself that it was good to be seen as a hard worker.

But that’s part of the problem. As Natalie Feinblatt, a licensed psychologist who specializes in codependency and perfectionism, tells AwesomenessTV, it’s a double-edged sword.

“On the one hand, it can make you an amazing student and/or employee. On the other, it can drive you crazy with anxiety and paralyze you with fear,” Feinblatt says. “When perfectionism becomes pathological, people pin their entire worth on their ability to create a perfect product, which just isn’t possible. In turn, they create a self-defeating cycle of shame.”

According to the study, the need to be perfect has contributed to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among young adults today than those a decade ago. So it can be a huge problem if you don’t work on it now.

How you can overcome it

For me, a major illness pulled me out of my perfectionism. When something like a big hospitalization happens to you, it gives you the opportunity to take a step back and realize what’s really important. Because of that, I kind of stopped caring what people thought of me, so that definitely lessened the pressure I put on myself.

According to Feinblatt, here are the three best ways you can overcome perfectionism:

  • Admit and accept it: Naming your perfectionism and accepting that it’s a part of you is the first step to overcoming it, she says. “It also helps to consciously look at the times where your perfectionism hasn’t served you, and has perhaps even hurt you.”
  • Ask for help: If you’re a perfectionist you probably know this is something you have a hard time with. “Oftentimes, they believe they have to do everything themselves,” Feinblatt says. But recovery doesn’t work that way. If you can, try to reach out to a trusted friend or contact a therapist for help in working on this part of yourself.
  • Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): “Oftentimes perfectionism is based on a series of very distorted beliefs about oneself and the world,” she says. How many times have you told yourself, “I must be perfect to be loved” or “Everyone will hate me if I mess this up”? CBT can help you zero in on those thoughts and help you change them to be more realistic. “Ultimately, it’s about helping you feel better about yourself and the world,” Feinblatt says.

Breaking out of a perfectionist’s mindset can be difficult. Like I said, I wasn’t even aware it was hurting me until recently.

Maybe some people deal with perfectionism better than others. But if it’s hurting you and making you miserable, it’s okay to take a step back and see what you need to do to turn it around.

Kristine Fellizar
Kristine Fellizar

Kristine Fellizar is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She specializes in everything related to sex, dating, and relationships. When she’s not working and feeding into her coffee and boba addiction all over L.A., chances are you'll find her at Disneyland.