Photo: Kristin Schmit / Flickr
Photo: Kristin Schmit / Flickr

“Perfectionism” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Most often, it’s used to refer to a hyper-achieving, hyper-detail-oriented individual who wants to have the best of everything.

And there’s nothing wrong with striving for more. A lot of us consider ourselves as perfectionists because we don’t want to settle for anything other than the best.

But the “best” can mean different things for different people. For many, the “best” means “we tried our best.” If it doesn’t work out, oh well, what can you do? We’re only human.

For others, the “best” implies some higher, objective ideal that most likely doesn’t exist. You study for an exam and get a 96% – it’s good, but you still feel like it’s not good enough. Worse yet, even if you had gotten a perfect score, you would still not feel “good enough.”

Perfectionism makes your life unhappy

From a psychological standpoint, perfectionism goes beyond a need to excel. It refers to a need to be perfect that is debilitating. Often, perfectionism is accompanied by depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

A study published in the Review of General Psychology revealed even more. The researchers maintained that, “perfectionism is recognized as a factor that is linked with suicide,” a link that had been considered before, but added that “the role of perfectionism as an amplifier of the risk of suicide has been underestimated.”

Even milder forms of perfectionism are likely to make you unhappy. Gordon Flett, psychologist at York University and lead author of the study, attributes much of this dissatisfaction to the “mask” perfectionists construct and present to the world.

Perfectionism leads to “mask-wearing”

Perfection is often impossible, so often times perfectionists adopt the next best thing: the appearance of perfection. On the exterior, they may be excelling in all parts of life; on the inside, they feel inadequate.

The image of having it all together, when mental life is so different, makes perfectionists “feel like imposters,” says Flett.

On college campuses, especially, a culture of perfectionism is proliferated. Students are expected to be competitive, but an attitude of “I want to be the best” easily turns into “I need to be the best.” Many of my peers willingly sacrifice mental health for higher grades, and students boastfully complain that they haven’t slept in two days.

How to combat the cause

The good news is, perfectionism is not an inherent trait and can be unlearned. Flett advises perfectionists to aim their energy outside themselves. Activities such as volunteering is a good a way to define yourself by the good that you can give instead of the mistakes you can make.

This may seem like a selfish reason to give back, but most motivations for volunteering are more complicated than pure altruism. Helping others to help yourself seems like a win-win.

With students, it’s easy to hide unhealthy habits behind dreams of a 4.0. Elsewhere, ambition, dedication, and attention to detail may be the cloaks that hide deeper insecurities. Motivation is good, but perfectionism is not motivation; perfectionism is often harmful, potentially dangerous, and unfortunately easy to mask.