The paradox of perfectionism is that it promotes behaviour that is far from perfect. In its grip we strive to be our best and often become our worst; unforgiving, rigid and abusive.
On a good day, perfectionism can motivate us to strive towards our potential and see the potential in others. On a bad day, it pokes and prods at ours (and others’) perceived flaws, prompting behaviour towards ourselves (and often others) that is ugly and highly flawed.
Jennifer Kemp has struggled with perfectionism for most of her life.
It wasn’t until eight years ago, when she went to see a talk by eating disorder specialist and perfectionism researcher, Professor Tracey Wade, that she realised it was a trap that does not make life perfect.
Jennifer Kemp… a reformed perfectionist.
As she walked into the auditorium, Kemp found herself listening to the words of the song being played. It was about never being good enough.
“I just felt myself fill up with tears,” she recalls. “I went ‘Oh God, this is what has been going on for me for so long’. Setting those really high standards for myself for so many years had led me to anxiety and depression and, at times, eating problems.”
Then in her mid 30s and doing her masters in psychology, she realised she still wrestled with its relentless and unattainable ideals. She decided to do her thesis in perfectionism and has been studying and speaking on the subject ever since, most recently to other therapists at the recent Australian Psychological Society’s College of Health Psychologists Conference.
Increasingly common, perfectionism is not always negative explains Kemp, now a senior clinical psychologist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
“Behaviours can be both helpful and unhelpful,” she says. “The vast majority of perfectionistic behaviours are probably helpful; setting high standards for yourself, working hard to achieve them, trying not to make mistakes.”
If you talk to people about their perfectionism, they think ‘Oh my god you want me to drop all of my standards and be lazy'.
There’s an “edge” where it tips into being unhelpful.
“It’s when our whole sense of self rests on not getting that [goal] and when we don’t get it we are a terrible person, a complete failure, a loser.”
Or we do achieve it but still find fault.
“You can be performing 'perfectly' and be extremely unhappy,” she explains. “There’s nothing wrong with [standards]… it’s the hyper vigilance, being really anxious – that’s the problem.”
Left unchecked, perfectionism can wreak havoc in all areas of our lives.
“It can affect parenting, it can affect health, your relationships. It can be a real problem in intimate relationships – if you have very high standards for yourself and other people it’s very draining on a relationship. Your partner feels like they are never measuring up or meeting your needs, you’re constantly anxious or stressed because you’re not happy with yourself or other people around you,” Kemp explains.
“Perfectionism is related to so many other problems.”
She reels off a long list of health issues that perfectionism is linked to – as a risk factor, a cause and a factor in the problem persisting – including OCD, social anxiety, panic disorder , generalised anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, burnout, depression, body image problems, chronic fatigue, hoarding, marital dissatisfaction.
Placing too much pressure on ourselves, or others, inhibits performance … by ruthlessly pursuing it, we are less likely to achieve it.
“And those are just the ones we know of.”
Placing too much pressure on ourselves, or others, also inhibits performance, which is another paradox of perfectionism; by ruthlessly pursuing it, we not only become unhappy, we are less likely to achieve it.
While therapists increasingly use CBT to treat "clinical perfectionism”, it is not a disorder listed in the diagnostic manual. Kemp doesn’t believe it is a personality trait either, although it is correlated with conscientiousness.
“I look at it pragmatically as a set of behaviours that you learn and are reinforced over time. I call it unhelpful perfectionism,” she says, explaining that life stressors and feeling out of control can tip it from “helpful” perfectionism.
In Kemp’s personal and professional experience, two approaches work to bring it back into balance: cultivating flexibility and compassion.
“If you talk to people about their perfectionism, they think ‘Oh my god you want me to drop all of my standards and be lazy’,” Kemp says. She insists we can have high standards and champion ourselves instead of criticising ourselves.
“We talk about bringing perfectionism back to being the right size for your life – that might mean becoming a bit more flexible about these behaviours and bringing it back 10 per cent.”
Developing the skill of compassion can have a profound impact.
“Compassion-focused therapy is an emerging field,” she says. “It talks about building the capability of being kind to yourself and finding a compassionate wisdom and strength and to use that to support yourself.”
“We can motivate ourselves and learn and grown and develop as humans speaking to ourselves in a much kinder way than we do,” Kemp assures. “That’s actually a skill that needs to be developed.”
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