A perfect storm: 8 signs of toxic perfectionism, causes and ways to break free from the cycle
Updated: May 21
The definition of perfection in the Cambridge dictionary describes it as: “the state of being complete and correct in every way,” which reflects the common societal perception that perfection is a worthy pursuit. After all, “Striving for perfection” and “practice makes perfect” sound like positive aspirations, right? In some cases, yes, but what happens when perfectionism becomes toxic?
In psychology, perfectionism has a much darker side; it’s linked to a long list of clinical issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicide[i]. A meta-study carried out by Tom Curran, and Andrew Hill showed the prevalence of perfectionistic tendencies of undergraduates from 1989 through to 2016 in Canadian, American, and the UK is increasing from generation to generation[ii]. Another alarming trend can be observed in a 2018 NHS survey, reporting a 48% increase in emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression) in 5-15-year-old students between 2004 and 2017[iii]. Could this be a coincidence or a contributing factor to the rise of mental ill-health?
"48% increase in emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression) in 5-15-year-old students between 2004 and 2017"
Although there are varying definitions, toxic perfectionism stems from these core elements: always striving to meet extremely high standards for yourself and/or others, judging worth based on achievement, and continuing to aim for perfection despite the detrimental impact it has[iv]. Curren and Hill’s research found three cultural shifts that have influenced the rise of toxic perfectionism. These include increased desire for individuality, the rise of meritocracy (how people are ranked based on achievement), and heightened anxiety within parenting styles in response to growing pressures to meet expectations.
Increased desire for individuality
In the 1960s and 1970s, social movements pushed for liberation from oppressive cultural constructs of the time. Rights groups created a momentum of people wanting to break free from social norms and insist on having individual rights, identities and perspectives[v]. As a statement of liberation, people wanted to express their individuality, and businesses capitalised on this cultural shift.
Companies have long been aware of how to tap into people’s unconscious drives to maximise sales. Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, revolutionised advertising for this purpose. Bernays was interested in his uncle’s work on what unconsciously drives behaviour and found that he could influence buying habits by evoking emotions such as desire and insecurity through media. An example is when the iconic Volkswagen Beetle boomed in popularity when a carefully timed advert emphasised the car’s quirkiness. The Beetle became a well-known hippie symbol because it met the desire to be seen as a liberated individual and made record-beating sales in the 1970s. Media redefines what is individualistic, and with modern technology artificially altering images, it has heightened emotional responses to advertising.
Fast forward to modern times, and you only need to look at magazines for men and women to see how technology evokes insecurity that primes people’s susceptibility to advertisements. For example, perfectly airbrushed images dominate our media and unconsciously link worthiness to unrealistic standards of desired beauty or masculinity. The impact is that people feel they're not good enough when reality doesn't meet these artificial images. Feelings of inadequacy arise, adverts offer products promising to help achieve these high standards, desire builds, and temporary relief occurs when purchasing the so-called solution. However, relief is temporary because new trends tap into desires to be individualistic and/or feelings of inadequacy for those "not keeping up with the Joneses". These environmental influences keep consumers in cycles of feeling inadequate and buying in an attempt to meet ever-changing high standards of perfection to feel worthy.
Ranking for 'success'
The pressure to meet high standards is widespread, and changes to our education system after the second world war have also contributed to increased pressure to achieve perfection. After the second world war, the economy was in dire need of recovery. British Sociologist and politician Michael Young proposed a system to identify top talent to meet the demand for skills needed to repair the country’s finances. A meritocratic system was introduced in schools creating competitive environments with the aim to offer equal opportunities, where merit = I.Q plus hard work. However, research suggests this system resulted in further inequality and issues relating to student wellbeing and mental health.
Evidence shows that testing is an ineffective measure of student ability and potential. Cambridge Professor Diane Raey reflects on her 25 years of research in education, stating that; “…tests are neither objective nor accurate...” and found setting to be linked to the development of low self-worth[vi]. In one study, being ranked in such a way caused students mounting pressure to compete and achieve to; “…feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”[vii]. Perfectionism develops in response to feelings of inadequacy when not meeting demanding expectations from themselves of their environments. When reward focuses on high standards of academic achievement alone and not the learning process, anything other than high grades can feel like a failure. Environmental factors, don't just affect students, it also affects parents.
Pressure on parents causing anxiety.
The pressure of meeting social expectations on individuals in such a connected world can be immense. Often, people share snippets of their best-life headlines that look perfectly polished, so reality becomes skewed. Impossibly high standards become the new normal, leaving parents feeling inadequate and fearful of being judged.
In a 2015 survey, over 90% of mothers and 85% of fathers feel judged by strangers and other parents[viii]. The anxiety parents experience living up to expectations extends into all areas of life, including appearances, home living, and how well our children do in school to name a few. It’s not surprising that in a society that links a person’s value to how well their children perform, the focus on achieving within parenting styles has also intensified.
"Over 90% of mothers and 85% of fathers feel judged by strangers and other people"
The excessive drive towards achievement people experience from the world we live in causes feelings of low self-worth and perfectionism seeks to heal the emotional wound this creates. Inevitably, this causes issues in itself because perfectionism is unsustainable, mistakes will be made and unless the underlying wound is healed, the cycle of perfection continues and can have a detrimental impact on our health and wellbeing.
Reading this, if you think you’ve been affected by perfectionist parenting or may even have these tendencies yourself, be kind to yourself. Perfectionism is a natural response to challenging environmental conditions to which we are all exposed. You are not to blame for societal changes that influence behaviour passed from generation to generation, but we do have the power to recognise it and make a difference.
8 signs of toxic perfectionism:
Highly self-critical even if something is completed to a good enough standard, it will create stress and anxiety because only high standards are acceptable with perfectionism.
Tasks take a longer to complete because they must be perfect. Even daily tasks such as writing emails may be reread and written many times before sending.
Making mistakes causes extreme stress or anxiety- high achievement is linked to self-worth, so mistakes can feel like a failure.
Procrastination or avoidance- fear of failure can make starting a task challenging. Even when a task begins, someone with perfectionism may give up quickly to avoid this fear.
Difficulty making decisions- due to fear of being negatively judged or negative consequences like making mistakes, criticism, etc
Impatience- when self-worth comes from achieving a goal alone, striving to meet the goal quicker seeks to alleviate feelings of low self-worth.
Difficulty receiving criticism even if it’s constructive- receiving critical feedback is perceived as a mistake, which can trigger fears of failure and low self-worth.
Craving praise and recognition- seeking to repair feelings of low self-worth from external sources.
Ways to break free from cycles of perfection
Talking to someone can really help. If you are affected by anything explored in this article and would like to talk more, please contact me for a free, no obligation 30 minute consultation.
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[i] Limburg K, Watson HJ, Hagger MS, Egan SJ. The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology: A Meta-Analysis. J Clin Psychol. 2017 Oct;73(10):1301-1326. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22435. Epub 2016 Dec 27. PMID: 28026869. [ii] Curran, T., & Hill, A. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138 [iii] NHS Digital, https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2017/2017 (accessed 03/05/2021). [iv] Centre for Clinical Interventions, https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/-/media/CCI/Mental-Health-Professionals/Perfectionism/Perfectionism---Information-Sheets/Perfectionism-Information-Sheet---01---What-is-Perfectionism.pdf (accessed 19/05/2021 [v] Emily Robinson, Camilla Schofield, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Natalie Thomlinson, Telling Stories about Post-war Britain: Popular Individualism and the ‘Crisis’ of the 1970s, Twentieth Century British History, Volume 28, Issue 2, June 2017, Pages 268–304, https://doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwx006 [vi] The political Quarterly, https://politicalquarterly.blog/2020/06/15/the-illusion-of-meritocracy-damages-young-people-and-sanctions-inequality/ (accessed 10/05/2021) [vii] Curran, T., & Hill, A. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138 [viii] Zero to Three, Early Connections Last a Lifetime, https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1424-national-parentsurvey-overview-and-key-insights (accessed 18/05/21)