The dark side of perfection

by Siobhan Calafiore | @siobhancal

How does the word fail make you feel? What about the word mistake? For fourth–year law student Stephanie Brown, the question makes her recoil.

“It’s like my biggest fear, I can’t explain it. It’s just the biggest fear in the world. When people talk about fears of spiders and stuff I guess it’s kind of a similar level,” Brown says.

It’s part of our culture to value and celebrate hard work and achievement. Self-discipline, complex thinking, goal orientation, organisation, work ethic, focus and drive are all part of a formula for success. They’re qualities you list on a CV and they’re qualities dominant in perfectionism.

Our society esteems perfectionists for constantly meeting high standards. The pursuit of excellence is regarded as a good thing and is often demanded of us in all different aspects of life. But when it involves perfection, it may come at too great a cost.

While perfectionists appear successful and in control, it’s often at the expense of their happiness and wellbeing. The much darker side to perfectionism is rarely spoken about. To admit to struggle is to admit to being less than perfect.

Depression, anxiety, social phobia, stress disorders, alcoholism, insomnia, heart disease, obsessive–compulsive disorder, eating disorders and suicide are all mental health conditions associated with perfectionism. Perfectionists also have a shorter lifespan due to stress.

In September last year a York University study found perfectionism to be a bigger risk factor in suicide than initially thought.

Research leader Professor Gordon Flett recommended clinical guidelines include perfectionism as a separate factor for suicide risk assessment and intervention.

Out of intense fear of failure and rejection, perfectionists overwork themselves to maintain an unrealistically high set of standards. They base their self–worth on their ability to achieve these standards and anything which falls short – even small successes – is failure.

Some experts believe genetics set a predisposition for perfectionism but it’s our environment and life experiences which have the greatest impact. Perfectionistic tendencies can emerge at an early age resulting from conditional or absent approval, demanding expectations as well as direct and indirect criticism, and modelling.

Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett’s ‘Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale’ outlines three different types of perfectionism. It’s a 45 item questionnaire to measure and rate three aspects of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.

Self-oriented perfectionists suffer pressure internalised after setting unrealistically high standards for themselves. Other-oriented perfectionists hold unrealistic standards of others and place importance on those standards being met.

On the other hand socially prescribed perfectionists believe others hold unrealistic expectations for their behaviour and suffer from perceived external pressure to live up to those expectations.

Brown is a self-oriented perfectionist. She begins each semester with two expectations, to get straight HDs and to be the top of her class.

“It’s unrealistic but when it’s in my head it doesn’t seem unrealistic, it seems like well if I apply myself 100 per cent and do nothing else then I should be able to achieve it,” Brown says.

“Even in really hard classes where everyone is only just passing that’s no excuse, I should still be getting the top mark.”

So how does she feel when she receives a distinction? “I get a bit shocked,” she admits. “I’m like, ‘that’s bad’. It gives me motivation to do better on the next assignment whereas anything lower is almost debilitating, I can’t physically accept it.”

‘Bad’ results hit hard due to the perfectionist’s struggle to find things to like about themselves not associated with success or achievement. Results act as a measure of self worth and a way to gain approval from others.

Brown began connecting grades with self–worth when she was badly bullied as an eight-year-old. The only time her classmates would speak to her was when they needed help with their homework.

“That was my thing, I was the smart kid,” she explains. “If I didn’t have brains then what else did I have?” Her grades have since come to represent her.

“If somebody gives me a bad grade that’s like a personal thing, it’s who I am, so if I do badly everything around me just crumbles and I’m not worth anything, it’s almost catastrophic.”

RMIT senior counsellor Elizabeth Matjacic says perfectionism is a “huge problem” among university students.

“Anxiety is one of our top two presenting issues and within probably every case of anxiety there would be an aspect of perfectionism,” Matjacic says.

According to Matjacic the pursuit for perfection, regardless of the result, has a negative effect on individuals and puts strain on their relationships with others.

This rings true for Brown who has prioritised study over family, friends and even basic needs.

“During exam periods eating and sleeping is almost second rate, it doesn’t even cross my mind sometimes,” Brown says.

“In year 12 I lost ten kilos because I just couldn’t eat, I didn’t have an appetite.”

Brown’s fear of failing also leads to procrastination and catastrophic thinking.

“I put an assignment off and then I would have to do it the night before and be up to 3am,” she says.

“I would be shaking from the stress and I would be in tears trying to type.”

“I would think it’s not just one isolated assignment, it will link to my ability to get a job, my ability to be successful, my ability to earn money.”

Matjacic says this type of behaviour is common in perfectionists. She also sees students struggle to hand in assessments because they can’t let go of the draft.

“Students labour over it, they rework it and rework it and rework it,” she says.

Perfectionists’ stress and anxiety arise from all or nothing thinking, ‘I should’ statements, an obsessive need for control, constant comparison and self–criticism. This can lead to behaviours such as reassurance seeking, compulsive checking, excessive organisation, giving up rather than not doing a task well, overcompensation, indecisiveness, avoidance of risks or new things and being overly cautious and thorough in tasks. So is all this worth it?

“(Success) is kind of like a drug, you have it and you’re really happy and then you have the down and you’ve got to get it again,” Brown explains.

She labels it a “false” happiness; nothing more than short–term gratification. The feeling of failure is ofen long lasting and for Brown, it’s something paired with depression.

“When I was doing an accelerated year 12 subject we had a practise test and I got 40 per cent. I spent three days locked in my room just sleeping. It was the worst feeling,” she says.

Similarly, upon receiving a pass at university, Brown’s initial disbelief turned into feelings of grief and hopelessness.

“I could not stop crying about it, I could not stop thinking about it. I would try and study and I would just have a break down,” she says.

Many perfectionists are apprehensive about getting help out of fear their high standards will drop but success isn’t exclusive to perfectionism.

Matjacic says counselling teaches perfectionists to catch themselves in their perfectionistic thinking and helps them create more realistic goals.

“In the process of comparing ourselves to others, we can often find that we are lacking in some way,” Matjacic says. “We want to move students from thinking about what’s wrong with them to thinking about what’s right with them.”

Brown says she is happiest and most confident when seeking help. She’d like to see universities and workplaces put better structures in place to assist and prevent perfectionism  but the unfortunate reality is while many people suffer from it, the struggle of perfectionism is rarely discussed.

“I don’t think the community does have an understanding of how destructive it can be,” Matjacic says. “It’s something that is quite pervasive and it’s ingrained from a young age, the messages are everywhere.”

While we need to address perfectionism, we must first as a society learn and reinforce being less than perfect is okay.

Anyone needing support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. If you are at immediate risk of harm contact emergency services on 000.

Art by Lisa Vu

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

Sign up for Catalyst Magazine

Get the latest on what's happening
* = required field