Every day, before she went to work, Rebecca [not our subject's real name], 28, made sure her flat was perfect. She switched off and unplugged every appliance. She locked every door. She went back and unlocked them, then locked them again. This meant she was late for work, which filled her with terror. Perhaps she would get fired. She worried about this all the time.
The best way to avoid being fired, clearly, was to make sure everything was perfect. Much of her job, working for a trade publication, involved writing. "I would check and double-check and triple-check every sentence, fiddling with the content and word-order," she remembers. "I would frequently look up words or phrases just to check that I had used them correctly, even though I knew I had. Of course, this made it hard for me to meet deadlines."
At every performance review, she was found to have met expectations or exceeded them. Nevertheless, she came out of them feeling as if she had been told off. "I focused entirely on the negative, blowing it up out of all proportion," she says. "Towards the end of my employment, my boss suggested I apply for promotion. He identified a few areas I might want to work on in order to improve my chances. I took this as a sign that I was for the chop."
Road to nowhere
Welcome to the world of the perfectionist. It’s an exhausting, stressful place. Everything needs to be perfect but nothing - from your house to your career to your body - can ever be truly finished. There’s no closure for a perfectionist, no sitting back and enjoying the feeling of a job well done. Perfectionism is the hopeless pursuit of an impossible dream, a road to nowhere: after all, nothing and nobody can ever be truly 'perfect'. Yet among young people, in particular, it’s reaching epidemic proportions.
"We’ve known about perfectionism since before the 1950s," says Dr Thomas Curran, lecturer in sport psychology at the University of Bath’s Department for Health. "But in recent years, clinicians are saying that this is something they are seeing all the time. It’s become exceptionally current and more and more people are reporting symptoms."
The rise in perfectionism
Curran’s research bears this out. He was the lead author on a recent study from the University of Bath which analysed data from more 40,000 America, Canadian and British university students, from 1989 to 2017. It shows a 10 per cent rise in the extent to which young people attach an irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves and are highly self-critical.
And there’s been an even bigger rise in the extent to which they believe the world they live in is excessively demanding, and that they must display perfection to secure approval. That has risen by a third. For those with perfectionist tendencies, nowhere in the modern world is safe. That little voice that tells you you’re not doing well enough is no longer just in your head. It’s in your school, your university, your workplace and your phone.
Meet the perfectionists
So, what exactly do we mean by perfectionism? It’s normal, after all, to want to get things right. But there’s a point at which that becomes destructive. "The common perception of perfectionism is the over-striver, incessantly focused on perfecting things, whether that is making the best bridge if you are an architect or doing the best piece of work if you are a student," says Curran. "That’s called self-orientated perfectionism."
However, there’s more to this than just wanting to be the best. "Their high standards combine with the perception that others are expecting perfection," says Curran. "Plus, they see perfection as expressed outwards - perfection is expected of others. And perfectionists are punitive when people don’t perform perfectly."
Wanting to do well, having high personal standards and being diligent is not perfectionism, he emphasises. "Perfectionism is doing these things - but doing them to try and repair a sense of self-esteem. Perfectionists think they have a flawed self, and at a very basic level, perfectionism is about perfecting the self."
The causes, he says, are complex. Early literature suggests that parenting and the immediate family environment play a role, particularly the idea that your parents validated you when you did well, but hold that approval back when you didn’t achieve. That gives you the sense that you are only really worth something when you have achieved, so you develop perfectionist tendencies in order to gain parental approval. However, Curran believes the roots may be outside the home, as well: at the heart, in fact, of the market-based social reforms of social and civic institutions which began in the 1980s.
"Take education, for example," he says. "We now have standardised testing, setting, classification - all levers of the market, trying to put metrics on kids so they know where they stand. All this puts pressure on people. We are telling kids they are great if they have done well and they are rubbish if they haven’t. There is a sense that we need to achieve, strive, perform at all times.
"We also now have social media, which, again, is this idea that we are constantly vigilant about where we sit in the social hierarchy and how we appear to others. Broaden that out to a societal level and you get a major problem, especially for those people who have underlying vulnerabilities. But it's important to say that it's complex and it could well be that those things don't matter at all. That's just what we have speculated."
Life coach and counsellor Nicky Clinch says she’s not at all surprised that perfectionism is on the rise. She too believes social media has a part to play. “I had a client that I was working with last year who was really struggling with accepting herself for who she was and how she looked," she remembers. "I said: can you describe to me what you think you should look like? And when she described that, she wasn't describing herself. She was describing a picture of someone that she had seen. But you can never never quite live up to that picture, because it's not you."
It’s hard, she says, to cope with your imperfections when you’re constantly surrounded by images of perfection: the perfect home, the perfect body, the perfect way to behave. "Yet these are glimpses. They are literally snapshots of the best part of people’s lives, and they are forming this framework of how we should now be, all the time. But it’s an illusion. Many of my clients - who are 90 per cent female - battle with these pictures of who they should be versus who they actually are. They are constantly striving to match that, and they never quite feel like they can get there."
Trying too hard
But isn’t striving a good thing? Perfectionism can seem aspirational: Steve Jobs was a perfectionist, after all, and his obsessions with the smallest details of his products changed the world. Yet the evidence suggests that perfectionism isn’t something to aim for if you value your mental health. Last year, Curran worked on a study led by Dr Andrew Hill of York St John University that closely links perfectionism with burnout. Canadian psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett have linked perfectionism to eating disorders, clinical depression and anxiety disorders, and it also has a positive association with suicidal thoughts and depression.
"Being meticulous, and wanting to do things with integrity and being meticulous about how it all turns out can be an incredibly positive trait," says Clinch. "Learning those skills is a very positive thing. I run my own business and it’s good to do well in everything that you do. But while trying to be meticulous, we've also got to give ourselves the ability to be human. Steve Jobs achieved enormous success. But his wellbeing was not in a very good place. He suffered from stress, anxiety and anger issues. I think perfectionism really took its toll on him. It can become quite an obsession, this meticulousness."
For most of us, Clinch emphasises, perfectionism doesn’t enhance our work: it can even hinder it. It robs us of the ability to improvise, to mess around, to iterate and make mistakes. One of her clients, a former artist, is trying to start drawing again. "But it’s never quite good enough. So she doesn’t even start. The perfectionism is actually blocking the creative process."
The way out
But it’s entirely possible to manage your perfectionism, with help. Rebecca is living proof of that. She left her job to pursue a new career in the legal sector, and after suffering a big spike in her anxiety levels, sought help. "I was diagnosed with OCD. The diagnosis helped a great deal, as I was now able to identify where my perfectionist tendencies were coming from," she says.
"With the guidance of my excellent cognitive behavioural therapist, I started to see my self-doubt and perfectionist urges as obsessive thoughts. They were just glitches in my brain - the result of bad wiring. I learned that it is possible, with considerable effort, to rewire the brain. So I got to work on that."
These days, she says, she’s in a much better place. "I still have problems with perfectionism, especially when it comes to my relationship," she says. "But I’m learning every day how to manage my OCD better. The main things that have helped me are mindfulness practice every day, Jeffrey Schwartz’s ‘Four Steps’ programme’, and a table I drew for myself of my brain - I try to look at this when I feel the perfectionism surging.
"I identify which part of my brain is going haywire, and try to imagine it glowing red hot. Then I try to imagine my brain’s ‘Assessment Centre’ lighting up with a sort of cool, white light and the red glow simultaneously fading. Then there’s ‘avoiding avoidance’ – identifying when I am avoiding doing something or going somewhere out of fear, and forcing myself to do it or go there anyway. If you hide away, you feed the beast."
Perfectionism, Curran points out, is a spectrum along which we all sit. And hopefully, increased awareness will see more of us stepping back from those environments that encourage perfectionist tendencies. That could mean anything from taking a break from social media to developing a culture of experimentation, innovation and ‘good enough’ in our workplaces, schools and home lives. Google X’s ‘moonshot factory’, for example, rewards employees for failure - if you don’t do that, nobody will take risks.
"My cooking teacher always used to say to me: there are no mistakes in the kitchen, Nicky, only new creative inventions," says Clinch. "You have to allow yourself to make mistakes if you really want to be good at what you do. Otherwise, you are never allowing yourself to grow."