How to beat your Perfectionist Personality
In my far-off school days there was a not-quite-unspoken understanding that you had to perform at your best or ruin your life for ever. It played straight into the hands of my perfectionist personality and saw me frequently study into the wee small hours to get everything done. Highly self-critical, I was never satisfied and could spot errors and under-performance a mile off.
I lived in terror of less than best. I guess I was lucky though.
In the late 1970’s I found myself on a Chemical Engineering degree at University (‘University’ hadn’t yet morphed into ‘Uni’). Half way through Fresher’s week, I began to find that my A-level grades were higher than pretty much everyone else on the course. I’d worked myself far harder than I needed to & could’ve achieved my goal with far less effort and angst.
It was the beginning of a realisation that good enough is sometimes better than best. Looking back, it was the start of a road which lead me to be a Harley Street therapist over 30 years later.
Meanwhile back at now
Meritocracy is in full flow in our education system and whilst it has many merits, there’s a major downside. The intense sense of competition and the apparent need to excel in order to survive is feeding an unhealthy drive for perfection.
A recent study is the first to examine generational differences creating that perfectionist personality, describing it as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.”
I thought I’d been hit hard with it back in my day. Apparently not.
The drive for perfection in body, mind and career has significantly increased compared with earlier generations. And it’s affecting their mental health, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” said Curran, co-author of the study. “Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”
Perfectionist personality traits have increased by 10% in the last 30 years whilst the perceived pressure from society to excel has increased by over 33%. And it’s not just inward pressure. Our expectation of others has increased too.
Approximately half of high school seniors in 1976 expected to earn a college degree and by 2008, that number had risen to over 80 percent. Yet, numbers of those earning degrees has failed to keep pace with rising expectations, according to Curran. The gap between the percentage of high school seniors expecting to earn a college degree and those with one doubled between 1976 and 2000 and has continued to rise.
“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” said Curran. “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”
To an extent this increase in expectation can be a good thing, driving people to be better versions of themselves. The problem is when those expectations come at the expense of self-worth and self-care.
The constant drive for achievement pushes many into poor mental health with stress, anxiety and depression hugely on the rise. Certainly I’ve got my fair share of stressed and anxious students as clients.
So what can you do to manage these pressures and keep yourself healthily engaged without frazzling your brain?
Plan For Recovery
Consider high performance athletes, musicians, F1 drivers; they aren’t always either training or competing. And even when they do train or compete, it isn’t an endless slog of hour after hour, day after day. They build in breaks, changes of pace, combining high intensity with low intensity, rest & recuperation. There’s deliberately planned downtime. Recovery is as much if not more important than training. If you don’t recover, pretty soon you can’t compete.
There’s plenty of research into ultradian rhythms, (look it up on Google – other good search engines are available, so they tell me). The human brain sustains high concentration for between 30 & 90 minutes then its efficiency fades rapidly. We’re designed for short bursts.
Make use of this by deliberately building in short bursts of high concentration with recovery breaks in between. This can be anything from a full no-work-lunch-break (yes, they do exist) to 2 minutes walking back to your desk deliberately thinking about how you’d begin Season 3 of Stranger Things or other box set of choice. If you’re up for it, learn to meditate. Go to the gym. Anything which feeds you rather than drains you. Literally every second helps.
The more you try it, the more you’ll find you can achieve when you do work. Experiment until you find your optimum balance. Many clients are surprised at just how much downtime they can create and still see an upturn in productivity, never mind better mental health.
Give it a go & share how you get on.
Ask any questions you might have – I’m here to help.