“We have seen this paradox during COVID: while people are showing that they are coping on social media, in private they aren’t, but because they see others who look like they’re learning Latin, reading poetry and raising perfect children while working, they are feeling like they should be doing better, too,” Martin says.
Trying to look successful has always existed, as has, to a degree, perfectionism. But what hasn’t always been around is the 24/7, real-time pressure on social media to look functional in every way.
“Research suggests that perfectionism has been on the steady increase over the last 20 to 30 years,” says Martin, pointing to a recent study looking at changes in perfectionism in more than 40,000 students from 1989 to 2016.
This was found to be consistent across the three most common types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism (holding unrealistic expectations of ourselves); the aforementioned socially-prescribed perfectionism (holding beliefs that we need to be perfect in order to be socially accepted), and other-oriented perfectionism (holding unrealistic expectations of others).
Dr Bruce Campbell, a clinical psychologist from the Centre for Clinical Interventions, says that the increase in perfectionism in the “last two to three decades is also likely to reflect changing social environments where competitiveness is valued, high achievers are increasingly recognised and rewarded, and parenting styles driven by anxiety have tended to become more controlling”.
“In addition, comparisons between people’s endeavours and achievements are easily accessible through the multitude of always available social media platforms,” he adds.
It’s easy to see how platforms like Instagram can pull anyone into a vortex of self-loathing and anxiety on a good day. Add a pandemic and multiple lockdowns, and the barrage of posts highlighting someone’s great parenting skills, someone else’s book launch and podcast appearances or weight loss results amid stay-home orders can significantly add to feelings of failure, especially in those already prone to them.
As author Rainsesford Stauffer writes in An Ordinary Age, “if you’re a young adult today … it’s a challenge not to feel as though finding yourself has been turned into a competitive sport. Now, it seems, striving to be extraordinary, being exceptional and being special are the same as being capable, fulfilled and happy”.
And it doesn’t help that perfectionism is often confused with high standards, and tends to be painted as a positive trait paired with our greatest accomplishments; “It drives me”, “it helps me to maintain a high standard”, “I wouldn’t be here without it” are all thoughts that routinely go through my head, even as I struggle with their negative impacts.
While it may be on the rise, perfectionism is manageable and can be put into perspective, provided we are ready to retrain our minds and, if necessary, get some help.
Campbell says that generally, it’s a good idea to have high standards; having goals helps you achieve things in life.
“It’s when these goals are either unachievable or only achievable at great cost that it makes it very difficult to feel good about yourself – this is when perfectionism can be problematic,” he says.
“If we have been rewarded for achieving very high standards, and particularly if this has happened on many occasions, then the ideas that we form about the need for unrelenting high standards become strongly reinforced. Eventually, these unrelenting high standards become our rules for living.”
He says to overcome perfectionism, we have to be prepared to adjust this rule and become more flexible with it: “If I expect less of myself, I may achieve a little less, but that’s OK.”
Martin suggests trying to diversify your activities and priorities, and incorporating some fun into your life.
“Where else can you get that sense of achievement, what other baskets can you put your eggs into? If they’re all in one, you’re very vulnerable,” he says. “No one part of our life should contribute more than a third to our self-esteem.”
A word of caution: pick your other baskets with care (I’d know: picking hobbies is risky: how do you turn on the brakes before thoughts start to intrude that maybe this could become your side hustle?)
“Some people who get to the top of their field may now pick something else to excel at [but] try not to set more traps for yourself,” he says. “When I talk to students I ask them, what sort of brother or friend are you? How much time do you spend outside?
Focusing on other activities such as spending more time with friends and family, and striving less for outcomes is much less likely to result in perfectionism, he says.
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