The consequences of perfectionism are varied and enormous. They leave a trail of frustration, disappointment and dissatisfaction in their wake that ends up affecting our quality of life. Unfortunately, in competitive societies, perfectionism is exalted as a value while social networks extol the perfect image, so we can end up rejecting everything that strays from those canons while we obsessively seek perfection in everything we do, or even in what we are. However, as Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good”.
What are the main consequences of perfectionism in the long term?
We tend to think of perfectionism as a value or even make it the emblem of success. However, more and more psychologists are questioning this tendency to perceive perfectionism as a desirable goal worth striving for.
A study conducted at the University of Bath and York St John University over nearly two decades found no evidence to support the idea that perfectionists are more successful. Quite the contrary. Most perfectionists feel discontent and dissatisfied with themselves and what they do, consumed by a constant feeling of not being enough.
Another research conducted at Netanya Academic College found that perfectionists tend to be more motivated and engaged at work – a positive thing – but also have higher levels of burnout, stress, anxiety, depression and are workaholics,.
In fact, there is a deep link between perfectionism and various mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, and even suicidal ideation. Researchers at Trinity Western University discovered that perfectionism shortens life expectancy while optimism and perceived self-efficacy can lengthen it.
The main problem is that perfectionism plunges us into a loop of frustration and dissatisfaction that affects our mood and, in the long run, our quality of life. Perfectionists may hold unrealistic expectations and set goals that are too rigid by assuming an all-or-nothing mentality; that is, they think that if they do not achieve perfection, it is not worth it.
The consequences of perfectionism are so disastrous precisely because they force us to focus on results. Those who seek perfection focus primarily on destination, forgetting about the journey. By focusing almost obsessively on the goal, they forget to enjoy themselves along the way, so they lose much of the pleasure of life and, if the final result does not meet their high expectations, disappointment is assured.
How does perfectionism originate?
Seeking perfection makes us more unhappy. But we are not born perfectionists, we become perfectionists. That means that society and the way it is configured plays an essential role in that desire and search for perfection. In fact, escaping from the perfectionist imprint can be particularly difficult since it is instilled in us from a young age.
In a way, the pressure from parents and teachers to get better grades begins to plant the seeds of perfectionism. This pressure makes many children, instead of feeling happy for having achieved a good grade, feel disappointed for not having achieved the best grade in the class.
In fact, the main problem of perfectionists is that nothing is never enough. At its heart, perfectionism is really about the desire to perfect a “self” that is perceived as imperfect. It is a desire to prove to others, or to oneself, one’s worth through that perfection. Therefore, an association is established between the absence of failures and personal worth.
Compassion as an antidote to perfectionism
One of the most important things we must learn in life is to let go of the pursuit of perfection and treat ourselves more compassionately. There is nothing wrong with striving to become our best version, but we need to avoid falling into pathological perfectionism.
We can do our best, but we have to be willing to give up the desire for everything to work perfectly. Once we have tried our best, we need to learn to flow. This does not mean conforming or resigning yourself to mediocrity, but being aware that we cannot control all the variables that affect a result.
We need to recognize that we are vulnerable and imperfect. And feeling comfortable with that image of ourselves, an image that is much more realistic and helps us reduce the unnecessary and harmful pressure that we add to ourselves every day. Treating ourselves with compassion does not imply being permissive or lax but being understanding.
We need to understand that imperfections are not deficiencies. They are reminders that we are human. Imperfections do not diminish our worth, on the contrary, every time we fail, we grow. When we take risks and make mistakes, we learn something new. When we fall and get up, we become more resilient.
Ultimately, significant people – those who really care about us and who matter to us – will love us unconditionally no matter what our successes or failures. And we should do the same.
Curran, T. & Hill, A. P. (2019) Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin; 145(4): 410 – 429.
Tziner, A. & Tanamil, M. (2013) Examining the links between attachment, perfectionism, and job motivation potential with job engagement and workaholism. Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology; 29: 65-74.
Fry, P. S. et. Al. (2009) Perfectionism and the Five-factor Personality Traits as Predictors of Mortality in Older Adults. J Health Psychol; 14(4):513-24.