Is perfectionism affecting your health?
In today’s society, being perfect is a goal that so many of us strive for.
Our desire to be the best at everything, be perceived by others as happy and successful, is high on our ‘to do’ lists and something that is only exacerbated further by social media.
Yet, in aiming to achieve these unsustainable and unrealistic goals, many of us are putting our health at risk.
In fact, much research has shown that perfectionism is associated with many negative impacts on both our physical and mental health.
In a 2014 study in the Review of General Psychology, researchers found that perfectionists were more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression, and may even be an overlooked risk factor for suicide.
Similarly, one Canadian study found that new mothers striving to be the ‘perfect’ parents were more susceptible to suffering postpartum depression.
And the studies relating to physical health impacts don’t fare much better.
In 2013, Gordon Flett, Professor of health psychology at York University in Canada, found that perfectionists who had suffered a heart attack recovered more slowly and were at increased risk of further heart problems than those without perfectionistic traits.
Whilst another study, published in the journal Gut, found that perfectionists have a higher chance of developing irritable bowel syndrome with prolonged recovery compared to the general population.
Other research has also associated perfectionism with increased risk of eating disorders.
Addicted to perfection
Writer and author of Practical Perfection Kelly Exeter is a self confessed perfectionist. However, following a mental and physical breakdown, she’s had to learn how to manage this better.
“For most of my life I didn’t realise I was a perfectionist, because I thought perfectionists had to be perfect at everything,” she says.
“It was only when I was researching my book and came across a breakdown of the types of perfectionism, that I realised I was a self-oriented perfectionist.”
Exeter says that she sets very high standards for herself personally as a wife, mother, friend and daughter, as well as professionally.
She also confesses to being highly driven and motivated by goals.
“I get a huge rush from achieving my goals and it’s a ‘hit’ I’m always chasing,” she says. “So, previously if I was unsuccessful in meeting my self-imposed high standards, I would feel like I’d failed.”
Exeter started to realise she had a problem when she became a parent and suddenly had less time to devote to all the huge goals she’d set herself.
“The final straw for my breakdown was probably the suicide of a friend,” she confesses.
“I’d been on the edge for a long, long time and that was what ended up tipping me over. But, if the suicide hadn’t happened, something else would have, as I was in a pretty bad way both physically and mentally.”
Since then Exeter has seen a psychologist and started to implement strategies to curb her perfectionism.
“I had to learn to be kinder to myself, and learn when to recognise when a goal was quite unreasonable,” she says. “I also had to remember that pushing myself would compromise my health again.”
In addition to this, she developed a framework that enabled her to manage her perfectionist tendencies a lot better.
Despite this, she acknowledges that she’ll always be a perfectionist, to some degree.
“I’ve discovered that fighting against that and trying to ‘not’ be a perfectionist is such a waste of energy,” she says. “It’s a much better for me to work with who I am, and manage my perfectionism instead.”
Breaking the habit
Health psychologist Marny Lishman says that perfectionism is on the increase because we have more opportunities to compare ourselves with others on social media.
“In the past we had family, friends and acquaintances to measure up to,” she says. “But now with social media, we have thousands upon thousands of people that we can compare ourselves to.”
She notes that perfectionists are achievement oriented so have to be the best at everything and tend to avoid activities where they can’t excel.
She also says that perfectionists often sacrifice other parts of their life in their quest to be the best in one particular area, have very black and white thinking and can be highly critical of themselves.
“Perfectionism may sound like a great quality to have, but if it becomes about attaining something unreasonable, it’s hard to be happy – particularly when you attach your self-worth to whatever you’re trying to achieve,” she says.
Lishman notes that because of this, perfectionism can negatively impact on your mental health, which, subsequently, can impact on your physical being.
“Perfectionism has been linked to depression and anxiety and can lead to high levels of stress,” she says.
“If you can’t attain perfection this can also lead to a loss of confidence, self perception and self esteem.”
So how can we best curb or overcome our perfectionistic traits?
“If you’re a black and white thinker, start to explore the grey areas,” suggests Lishman.
Additionally she recommends trying to change your behaviours in small ways to see if not performing perfectly makes a huge difference – she points out that you’ll probably find it doesn’t.
She also suggests practising doing some activities just for the enjoyment of it
In terms of the longer term, Lishman advises seeing a psychologist.
“Try to see someone who can help your cognitions and help find ways to change your thinking patterns,” she concludes.
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