Is perfectionism an illness? 

In a competitive culture that values work ethic and merit, is perfectionism a benign trait that helps us succeed, or is it a pernicious illness we need to take more seriously?

Dr. Tom Curran from LSE’s Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science researches perfectionism, its damaging effects, and why society is making it more prevalent.

The Perfectionist Trap

“We typically aim for a particular career because we have been deeply impressed by the exploits of the most accomplished practitioners in the field.

We formulate our ambitions by admiring the beautiful structures of the architect tasked with designing the city’s new airport, or by following the intrepid trades of the wealthiest Wall Street fund manager, by reading the analyses of the acclaimed literary novelist or sampling the piquant meals in the restaurant of a prize-winning chef.

We form our career plans on the basis of perfection. Then, inspired by the masters, we take our own first steps and trouble begins. What we have managed to design, or make in our first month of trading, or write in an early short story, or cook for the family is markedly and absurdly, beneath the standard that first sparked our ambitions. We who are so aware of excellence end up the least able to tolerate mediocrity – which in this case, happens to be our own….”

Perfectionism in 3 Minutes

When you think of the word perfectionism, you might think of those you know (or maybe yourself) who are anal, OCD, and hard to work with. Perfectionism is when you aren’t satisfied until every little detail is up to your standard of “perfect.”

The problem with this is that perfection is subjective, and our subjective judgment changes from day to day. So while something in your eyes may be perfect today, tomorrow you opinion could completely change.

YouTube comments:

“I have perfectionism and one thing I go through is if I get hit on my arm I have to hit my other arm the exact same spot and it is very annoying.”

“Perfect is the enemy of the good” – I think it’s the enemy of great and downright awesome too. I often wonder how many amazing things we never got to see because it’s creator could only see the ways in which it missed the mark. I keep this in mind a lot.

How perfectionism makes us ill

Perfectionists are generally held in high-esteem: praised for their self-discipline and refusal to compromise. Yet in truth, the trait is a manifestation of self-hatred – and must be overcome if we are ever to feel truly fulfilled.

YouTube comments:

“Perfectionism also steals your joy, I speak from experience. You literally don’t allow yourself to celebrate your skills, accomplishments, talents because you are striving for perfectionism which is impossible so you are always looking for something to criticize.

You never feel anything enough. I used to have resentment for the fact other people were content with their mediocrity, meanwhile those of us who are at higher levels of skill/talent were beating ourselves up for that 1 tiny mistake or thing that could’ve been better.

I would literally carry these little flaws in my heart which made me sad and disappointed and not think of all the good and my progress. It’s messed up. I only realized in 2019 that in order to grow with joy, you have to accept and even celebrate your mistakes as in learn and laugh them off and keep it moving. Life is so much easier and joyful now that I’ve let go of perfectionism!! It really is toxic and it was probably taught to us by our parents.”

Perfectionism holds us back

If you can’t do it perfectly, why do it at all? Recovering perfectionist Charly Haversat challenges our obsession with perfection in our personal lives, workplaces and beyond.

Can we fight the crippling fear of failure and the unwillingness to compromise that it creates?