Is Perfectionism Making Us Sick? A Doctor Explains

Say the word ‘perfectionism’ and you’ll have people know instantly what you mean. And yet while we all inherently know what perfectionism means, do we really know what we’re talking about here? And even more, do we know what that one little term that’s used so often means when it comes to our health?

By Dr Kieran Kennedy, Medical Doctor and Psychiatry Resident

Broadly defined, ‘perfectionism’ might be deemed “a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”. As a psychological construct, perfectionism is a now well established and extensively researched. As a personality trait perfectionism is psychologically defined as a drive to attain standards as close to flawlessness as possible. Separate from striving for improvement or chasing big goals, perfectionism is less about the self and a drive to improve, but more about others and meeting externally perceived standards. The grand illusion here is thus that reaching a flawless state when it comes to who we are and what we do is very much attainable. Perfection is just a step away – if only you were good enough to achieve it. And it’s there we find the grand lie of perfectionism, and just why it can be bad for our mental health.

Because there’s an ironic twist to this story. Far from actually taking us closer to “flawlessness” or “a condition that cannot be improved”, studies show that higher levels of perfectionism are associated with worse (and wholly imperfect) health outcomes. Higher levels of perfectionism often correlate to greater discontentment, frustration and feeling unfulfilled. There are important links here too to medical conditions such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. It’s more clear than ever; society’s obsession with being perfect is making us sick.

Body Image + Perfectionism

Body image and appearance pressures are almost synonymous with modern concepts of perfectionism. Studies show that more people report dissatisfaction with their appearance now than ever before. Social pressures from peers, advertising and social media often offer up unrealistic images – pushing both men and women to attain the ‘perfect’ skin/lips/biceps/butt/abs/hair/waist.

Once again, many people feel driven to obtain external standards that are actually constantly shifting, without a clear point of consensus or “perfection” in the first place. Perfectionism around how we look is strongly linked to anxiety, depression, and body image or eating disorders. A spillover here too is growing rates of cosmetic and surgical procedures. Studies show that perfectionism around how we look often correlates to increased rates of procedures to alter appearance.

While many people going under the knife do report an improved sense of how they see themselves after, there are a concerning group who don’t (or actually come out feeling worse). Cosmetic procedures aren’t without risk, and when concerns around appearance reach obsessional levels people appear to be willing to take more and more, without guaranteed improvement in their sense of self or worth.

What are we chasing?

Understanding how perfectionism might impact negatively on our mental health, and doing something about it, mean we need to consider what ‘perfection’ actually is in the first place. What exactly are we all chasing here?

This part is important, and whether it’s appearance or other areas of our lives it’s here that some of perfectionisms influence on our mental health is truly laid bare. Because it’s when we come to truly appreciate what ‘perfection’ actually means – “a quality or condition that cannot be improved” – that we see the potential dark side here when it comes to our health and wellbeing.

When things like appearance, approval from others or success are largely subjective – buying into the belief that we can meet standards that don’t actually exist to start with makes perfectionism a never-ending treadmill.

Reality-checking perfectionism

And it’s here that we might best equip ourselves to fight back when to comes to society’s push toward perfection, and protect our mental health in the process.

With more messages about who to be, how to look and what to do than ever before, it’s vital we start asking ourselves where that drive for improvement and change is coming from. A strive for excellence and change driven from our own standards? Or a relentless push for perfection driven by comparison and meeting a mirage-like external line in the sand?

Questioning this, and reality-checking where some of those drives for bigger/better actually come from is how we start taking back control when it comes to perfectionism. It’s maybe only then that we can recognise the power of the imperfect, and see just how much our drive for ‘perfect’ is less than perfect for our health of mind.

Dr Kieran Kennedy is a Medical Doctor and Psychiatry Resident with degrees in Psychology, Physiology and Medicine/Surgery. Follow him @drkierankennedy

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