The Perfection Trap
A university student stays up all night polishing and re-polishing an essay until it’s just so. A teenager flips through an airbrushing app, sampling digital cheekbones. An aspiring musician practises a piece until her fingers bleed.
It’s not always easy to recognize when our drive to be our best veers into imperfect ground. Knowing the elusiveness of perfection itself, can anything good come from being a perfectionist? And is it really that bad for us?
University of Manitoba alum Ben Schellenberg [PhD/15], an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management, seeks the answers.
Schellenberg’s interest in the subject grew out of his work in sports psychology during post-doc studies with psychology professor Patrick Gaudreau at the University of Ottawa, where he discovered that perfectionism seemed to be hurting performance in some respects.
“It comes with a cost,” says Schellenberg. “If you are a basketball player you can have a great game, but it’s not quite perfect. Maybe you missed a few shots or had a couple of turnovers and so you beat yourself up over it. Maybe you have trouble sleeping or problems with a relationship because you are still thinking about that game that didn’t go exactly the way you wanted. That can have a real negative effect on your life.”
Traditional psychological thought has always divided perfectionism into positive and negative forms. An adaptive or healthy perfectionism is characterised by high standards, self-motivation and discipline versus a maladaptive, or unhealthy version, which is obsessed with avoiding mistakes and one’s best never seems good enough.
“Perfectionism is a tendency to pursue high standards relentlessly. Pursuing excellence is to strive for high standards, but set attainable goals in a flexible way.”
Gaudreau found that interpretation confusing and developed a new model in which the pursuit of perfectionism is distinguished from the pursuit of excellence. “Perfectionism is a tendency to pursue high standards relentlessly. Pursuing excellence is to strive for high standards, but set attainable goals in a flexible way,” explains Schellenberg, who has been conducting experiments with university undergraduates to evaluate whether the pursuit of perfectionism has any advantages, or if it actually has harmful effects.
A 2020 study of Canadian college students by Gaudreau and two colleagues from the University of Ottawa, suggests that perfectionism kills creativity. After taking a questionnaire, students were classified into three categories: perfection strivers, excellence strivers and non-strivers. They were then given five minutes to jot down as many creative things they could imagine doing with a newspaper, another five minutes to list of all of the creative uses they could imagine for a brick, and finally five minutes to name all of the things they could think of that make noise.
Researchers tallied the total number of responses each participant generated, and then judges evaluated the originality of each answer based on how unusual, remote, or clever the response was.
Students who scored high on excellencism and low on perfectionism had much higher scores on the test of creative potential. They not only generated more responses, but their responses were rated as being more original as well. On the other hand, the students who scored high on excellencism but took things a step further by also scoring high on perfectionism had consistently lower scores on the creativity test. These participants not only generated fewer responses, but their responses were rated as less original. The performance of students who rated low in both excellencism and perfectionism was basically the same as the perfectionists.
Schellenberg participated in another recent study of Canadian university students in which they were asked, “What grade are you trying to achieve?” Across the board, the perfectionists said they were aiming for A-plus grades, and yet when the students got their grades, the perfectionists performed more poorly than those pursuing excellence. Schellenberg says the study results show that the perfectionists lack a sense of reality and flexibility. “They don’t adjust their standards or goals or take into account the difficulty of a class.”
“If you said your biggest personality flaw was being a perfectionist, people wouldn’t be too concerned. It’s almost a cliché to say in an interview that your biggest weakness is that you are a perfectionist.”
Despite such findings, Schellenberg admits that many people don’t view perfectionism in a negative light. “If you said your biggest personality flaw was being a perfectionist, people wouldn’t be too concerned. It’s almost a cliché to say in an interview that your biggest weakness is that you are a perfectionist.”
But this perspective clashes with evidence that links perfectionism to an array of mental health issues. A 2016 paper published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that high levels of perfectionism were correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The constant stress of striving to be perfect can also leave people fatigued, stressed and suffering from headaches and insomnia.
The stats also indicate that the tendency is becoming more common. Two British researchers, Thomas Curran, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, and Andrew Hill, an associate professor at York St. John University, recently completed the first study to compare perfectionism across generations with a meta-analysis of data gathered from more than 40,000 college students from 1989 to 2016. They found that self-oriented perfectionism scores increased by 10 per cent, other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16 per cent and socially prescribed perfectionism scores rose by 33 per cent. “On average, young people are more perfectionistic than they used to be,” said Hill, and “the belief that other people expect you to be perfect has increased the most.”
Schellenberg says that social media may be partly to blame as the endless parades of likes, comments and follows can evoke feelings of inadequacy. The problem for perfectionists is that performance is tightly intertwined with their sense of self. When they don’t succeed, they don’t simply feel disappointment about how they did. They feel shame about who they are. Ironically, perfectionism then becomes a defence tactic to keep shame at bay: If you’re perfect, you never fail, and if you never fail, there’s no shame.
“It can be a major relief for someone to see that they don’t need to be perfect to succeed in school or in athletics.”
Schellenberg believes the key to escaping the trap of perfectionism requires nothing extraordinary: simply be kinder to oneself. “It is important for people to learn that it’s ok to make mistakes and that pursuing perfectionism might be a waste of time and resources and may even be hurting them by causing them to feel bad about themselves, or maybe even come at a cost in their creativity or their performance. It can be a major relief for someone to see that they don’t need to be perfect to succeed in school or in athletics.”