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‘The quest for perfection has cannibalised my identity’

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“You need to practice self-compassion,” my psychologist says to me. This is our sixth session, and, as per usual, he is struggling to find a phrase, a point – anything – that will help me move past the need to seek perfection in every part of my life.

“Yes, but how?” I ask, again. We talk about the usual techniques: not beating yourself up when you think you’ve failed; not automatically falling into a vortex of self-loathing at minor rejections.

“This experience does not reflect on you as a person,” he repeats, explaining that what I perceive as abject failure is a mere blip on the horizon, a simple fact of life.

Related: ‘No tricks. No mantras. I just want to learn how to do nothing’: my quest to stay still

I listen hard, I really do. I understand everything he says on an intellectual level, and I want to stop this ever-present stream of self-criticism before it gets too late.

The problem is the quest for perfection has cannibalised my identity.

Perfectionism is a personality trait, but psychologists classify it as a risk factor for a host of disorders, including (but not limited to) obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, social anxiety, social phobia, body dysmorphic disorder and workaholism.

It also confounds treatment. Dr Simon Sherry, a Canadian neuroscience professor and clinical psychologist, tells me perfectionists make for very difficult patients. “It can sabotage treatment at every level.”

Perfectionists are often undone at the first stage of therapy, says Sherry. They are reluctant to seek treatment, because to do so would be to admit they have failed. And if they do manage to get themselves in front of a therapist, they tend to have unrealistically high expectations of treatment, making them more prone to giving up before therapy has time to take effect.

Clients believe that their therapist is judging them and that they’re not working hard enough in therapy

Professor Tracey Wade

“They also struggle to play nicely, have intense conflictual relationships with other people and struggle to connect with others,” Sherry explains. “All this can interfere with helping establish the complicated alliance that needs to be built between client and therapist.”

Tracey Wade is a professor of psychology at Flinders University, Adelaide, and a leader in the study of perfectionism. When I call her up to talk, she is preparing a training session on how psychologists and therapists can best treat perfectionism.

“What usually interferes with perfectionists getting better is that they tend to block therapy,” she tells me. “Clients believe that their therapist is judging them and that they’re not working hard enough in therapy.”

According to psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, there are three types of perfectionists: the ‘self-oriented’ type, who keep strict standards for themselves and are motivated by avoiding failure at all costs; the ‘other-oriented’ type, who set perfectionist expectations for others; and the ‘socially prescribed’ form, who believe that others expect them to be perfect.

While people can suffer from a mixture of all three, each type is enough to cause a high level of anxiety on its own.

I don’t understand why therapy is not playing along

Caroline Zielinski

I’ve lost count of how many psychologists I’ve seen over my lifetime. All I know is that it’s roughly an equal number of men and women, aged between 35 and 60.

They have ranged from formal and less formal; their treatment approaches have varied from cognitive behavioural therapy to experimental exercises designed to reprogram my brain to work for me, rather than against me.

Some have given me books; others have told me to stop reading into it.

“What can I say that will make you feel better?” my current psychologist asked me at our last session. I’d been crying again, and he was running out of ideas how to help me. “You’re supposed to come out of these sessions feeling better, not worse.”

“I’m waiting for you to say that one phrase that will make it all click for me,” I replied.

“There is no one thing that will help – you have to start small.”

I left feeling more frustrated than ever before. In the past, I’d been able to change some of my more destructive habits after having one conversation, so I don’t understand why therapy is not playing along.

Young people are evaluated in a host of new ways … they are rated, ranked and tested on every single thing they do

Professor Andrew Hill

While perfectionism has always existed, never before have we seen it manifest itself so strongly in one generation. After conducting one of the largest-ever studies on perfectionism, Sherry and his colleague Dr Martin Smith found that perfectionism has increased substantially over the past 25 years, and that it affects men and women equally.

It’s also on the rise among young people: after analysing data from 41,641 American, Canadian and British college students, taken from the late 1980s to 2016, Professors Andrew Hill and Thomas Curran from York St John University found that over the study period, the self-oriented perfectionism scores increased by 10%; socially prescribed increased by 33%; and other-oriented increased by 16%.

Hill, the co-author of a significant paper looking at the rise of perfectionism, says that in our market-based society, the pressure for young people to demonstrate their value and outperform their peers is so immense it often leads to them, and their parents, to strive towards totally unrealistic goals.

“In this new society young people are evaluated in a host of new ways – almost every aspect of their lives is turned into metrics, and they are rated, ranked and tested on every single thing they do, down to how they look.”

Perfectionism is also partly genetic, and it is also strongly influenced by the environment a child grows up in.

Sherry says that over time, children internalise the conditions put on them by perfectionist parents and then take them into their own relationships.

“We need to encourage parents to love their children unconditionally,” he tells me. “We don’t want parents to react catastrophically to minor mistakes that their children make, and see minor mistakes as massive problems.”

According to Sherry, loving your children in proportion to their achievements (such as only rewarding them when they get high marks) “over time leads to them internalising these conditions, and then crashing in terms of their self-esteem and mood when they don’t get a promotion, or a sought-after achievement”.

This is not just a low mood: people who are perfectionists are at higher risk of suicide, and are more likely drop-out, self-criticise and suffer from a lack of self-compassion.

So is there hope?

It’s all about changing your mindset from ‘must’ to ‘it would be nice’

Over time, I’ve come to realise that the biggest obstacle to my own treatment is the belief that perfectionism fuels my ambition. I didn’t take the problem seriously.

For years, I wore my perfectionism like a badge of honour: “I strive for perfection,” I told myself, “which means my standards are extremely high and will result in higher quality work.”

While I did achieve high results, I’m starting to realise this may be in spite of, and not because of, my perfectionistic tendencies.

Wade says that fear is a strong motivator for perfectionists, and that “people are afraid to let it go because of their belief it achieves things for them”.

So how do you convince a perfectionist that what they consider to be a ‘high standard’ and ‘being productive’ is actually unattainable?

“Most studies and clinical observations show that perfectionism is the opposite of productivity,” Sherry says. “Perfectionists tend to have more episodes of depression, be more absent and are prone to negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety.

“Over time, perfectionists may start to unravel – they become less conscientious, organised, disciplined, reliable and goal-focused, and more neurotic and emotionally unstable.”

I ask all the experts if there is a way to change the belief that perfectionism is fundamental to success. To truly change it – not just intellectually – but deep within your heart. For Wade, it’s all about changing your mindset from “must” to “it would be nice”.

“Research shows that when you start to change your thinking from ‘should’ to ‘it would be nice, but it’s not the end of the world’, it becomes more about excellence rather than perfectionism.”

For Hill, it’s about “deriving value in yourself by what you add to others”, and perhaps he’s right. Perhaps shifting the outlook from bettering ourselves to helping others is the ultimate antidote to a society where individualism – and the insatiable need to be the best – has caused far more harm that we ever anticipated.

So as we continue to navigate a system that sets us up for failure – all the while demanding success at every turn – it’s worth asking ourselves: how far are we willing to go to present as the perfect human? And in the end, is it worth it?

As someone in the midst of it, I can honestly say no.

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