"Recovering perfectionist." It's a term that's popping up everywhere, from Instagram bios and podcast titles to growing number of self-help books.
Once seen as a fairly positive trait, perfectionism is now viewed largely as getting in the way of a healthy, productive life — and for good reason: The combination of high personal standards and self-criticism can be toxic.
Perfectionism, on the rise for decades, has been amplified by social media, which has upped the pressure on young people. A major 2016 study of college students in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom showed a 50% increase in perfectionism (9 to 18%) in fewer than 30 years.
As it has spread, many health care professionals and researchers have come to see perfectionism in a new light, including professor Brené Brown, whose 2010 TED talk championing the "courage to be imperfect" went viral.
But what does it mean to be a perfectionist? Can you pass it on to your kids? And how can you foster a healthier outlook? We posed those questions to Chelsea Ale, a Mayo Clinic Health System psychologist, and Nate Page, a psychologist at Carleton College who gives a presentation called "How to Successfully Fail at Overcoming Perfectionism." Their answers have been edited for space and clarity.
Q: We used to frame perfectionism in a more positive light. That seems to be changing. Why?
C.A.: In the psychology world, we see perfectionism as mostly getting in people's way of being successful. It is certainly something that in small doses can be helpful, but in large doses can really be paralyzing. When you have an impossibly high bar of perfection, it's much easier to either do nothing, or do things 1,000%. Just by sheer math, that's impossible. Setting this impossible expectation, either for yourself or for others, is really a setup for burnout and failure.
N.P.: With perfectionism, there's a belief that self-worth depends on accomplishments or productivity. If I perform really well, then maybe for a few moments I feel like I'm worth it, like I matter, like I belong, like I'm good enough. For a lot of people, even if they win that competition or get the 4.0 GPA or lose X amount of weight, they still never have that feeling, even though they chase it so much.
Q: When does perfectionism become downright dangerous?
C.A.: There's a real dark side to perfectionism that has a strong impact on people's physical and mental health. It's so normalized, and sometimes maybe even romanticized, that we just think of it as a normal part of being great. But at really strong levels, we see perfectionism that has gotten to the point where it's impairing people's ability to function on a day-to-day basis. It might be more consistent with obsessive compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, and sometimes can even drive chronic pain and physical disability.
Q: How does striving for perfection affect kids?
C.A.: We see kids who are setting themselves up for burning out by high school, or by middle school, they're working so hard and burning the candle at both ends. The concept of moderation — figuring out what things that you do need to pour yourself into 100% and what things you just need to do OK on — is a skill that we have to teach some kids. Perfectionistic teens probably would benefit from getting a B and seeing that the world doesn't crumble and that they can still be pretty happy, even if everything isn't perfect.
Q: What about pressures to be a perfect parent?
C.A.: That pressure is real. I think that social media has influenced that. With people sharing only curated snippets of their [perfect] lives, it can seem like that's how you should be. But fighting against those "shoulds" is a very strong model that parents can give their children. If you want to raise your kids to be flexible and healthy, and if that is truly your value, then allowing them to wear their shirt backwards and have food all over their face sometimes is stronger parenting than subscribing to this high bar of exactly what we should and shouldn't be doing.
I think we can help others in seeing that, too, not always talking only about our successes with friends and talking more openly about the struggles. Being real with each other and being accepting can help really promote a culture of reality rather than perfectionism.
N.P.: I would suggest celebrating the imperfection, celebrating the mess. I think a big thing for parents is learning how to apologize to our children when we mess up. Perfectionism is contagious.
Q: What are some ways to push back on perfectionism?
C.A.: Flexibility is a good thing. Doing things differently, doing things spontaneously, trying to roll with situations as they come and not always having a plan, but just changing things up from time to time can be a really nice way to counter perfectionism.
The flip side of perfectionism is really the fear of not being good enough. As we start to face that fear, and as we start to do things imperfectly and see that things are probably OK anyway, that becomes easier and easier. Being afraid of failure, and being afraid of not being the best really works the same way. Slowly, gradually getting more and more comfortable with it the more that we face it.
N.P.: Try the practice of saying, "It's OK to not be OK. I'm acceptable right now, as I am." That's the beginning place. Even though for a lot of us perfectionists, this is the opposite what we are used to. We are used to saying, "Oh, I will be OK once I'm around the next corner, once I do this, once I've overcome perfectionism, then I'll be OK." Practice flipping that, and saying, "No, right now as a perfectionist, as a flawed human being, I am totally OK."