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….”

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?

Perfectionism – 7 Examples

Perfectionism is a complex characteristic that according to experts, can be adaptive (healthy, positive, functional) or maladaptive (unhealthy, negative, dysfunctional).

This article explores the drives and concerns associated with perfectionism, along with theories that offer insight into this fascinating personality trait.

Atlas of Emotions

In the U.S. the field of psychology has grown in popularity. In the 2006-2007 school year, social science was tied with history as having the second largest number of awarded Bachelor’s degrees.

In fact, there are so many people majoring in psychology in the U.S. that psychology majors have the highest unemployment rates of all recent college graduates, with 19.5% of clinical psychology majors and more than 10% of educational and industrial/organizational psychology majors unable to find work.

A lot of this popularity is due to the work of people like Paul Ekman, an American psychologist, who has created an Atlas of Emotions, which identifies over ten thousand different facial expressions. He has also written fifteen books about body language including Telling Lies and Emotions Revealed.

Due to his high (albeit imperfect) success-rate with using small details in a person’s facial expressions to induce larger truths about that person, Ekman has served as an advisor to several police departments and anti-terrorism groups, including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Thanks to his work, Ekman has gained a reputation as the best human lie detector in the world.

Additionally, Ekman’s work was recently used as the basis for the television crime drama Lie to Me, a show in which several psychologists and facial expression experts use their knowledge of body language to assist in investigations. This show ran from 2009 to 2011, and won two People’s Choice Awards in 2011.

Sigmund Freud

Although Sigmund Freud was an Austrian his methods of psychoanalysis to resolve personal conflicts had tremendous influence in the entire German-speaking world, and eventually beyond. Psychoanalytical therapy involved up to three hundred individual sessions.

For Freud, as the founder of psychoanalysis, it was essential to identify unconscious emotional developments in order to understand human behavior. The earliest years of childhood are especially relevant. Psychological problems – conflicts – can be traced back to those earliest of years. 

Understanding developments over very long periods of time are fundamental to Freud’s approach to conflict resolution. Tracing psychological problems far back into one’s personal history, making the unconscious conscious, is the opposite of a quick (hasty) resolution of conflict.

Reconstructing Memories

“The uncritical acceptance of eyewitness accounts may stem from a popular misconception of how memory works. Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. 

On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.” 

Even questioning by a lawyer can alter the witness’s testimony because fragments of the memory may unknowingly be combined with information provided by the questioner, leading to inaccurate recall.”

From: “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts”, Hal Arkowitz and Scott Lilienfeld. Scientific American magazine, January 8, 2009.