Working hard and doing your best is never a bad thing. However, consistently setting unrealistic standards for yourself and constantly striving for perfection can have a hugely damaging effect on your self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth. This, in turn, leads to an increased vulnerability to developing certain psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.
In this Campfire Chat, we discussed why so many of us feel the need to achieve perfection, why it’s important for us to try and stop being so hard on ourselves, and the ways in which we can start letting go of perfect.
Key discussion points in the Campfire Chat included:
How would you define perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait that everyone has to some degree. Just like people can be more or less neurotic, people can be more or less perfectionistic. There are two core features of perfectionism:
- Setting overly high standards
- Being hugely self-critical
What are some perfectionistic traits and tendencies?
- Engaging in all or nothing thinking i.e., if I don’t achieve this really high standard that I’ve set for myself, then I have failed.
- Self-criticism – people who are high on perfectionism are very self-critical and chase after impossible standards which means they always fall short. High levels of perfectionism can be linked to having a greater risk of developing other mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
- A need to validate who you are through your accomplishments.
- Are concerned or have negative thoughts towards imperfection.
How can we recognise perfectionistic traits and tendencies in ourselves and others?
Generally, people are good at recognising perfectionism in themselves and others. However, when this isn’t the case, it is necessary to look at three things:
- How perfectionistic are your goals?
- Why are you aiming for them?
- How do you feel when you fall short?
People with high levels of perfectionism often have low self-esteem, as they rely on their achievements to give them value. When a perfectionist sets goals which are often unachievable, this can be very damaging for their self-esteem as they will always fall short of their own expectations.
People are multifactorial and levels of perfectionism vary from person to person. For example, new graduates may often feel anxious if they don’t match up to the idea of what they think they are meant to be.
Finding perspective can be difficult, particularly for the younger veterinary community. It’s difficult to be perfect in an ambiguous world – there is a gap between education and work. At school you know you have to learn a certain thing in order to gain a certain grade, whereas inevitably in the world of work you are more likely to suffer setbacks. It’s much less predictable.
Perfectionism can sometimes be associated with conscientiousness. However, doing your best isn’t a bad thing – it is the constant self-criticism that can cause damage.
Why do so many people feel the need to be perfect?
Perfection is the ideal that we have been presented with on a societal level – it is sometimes encouraged and even rewarded by society and can be considered a necessity to work at the highest level.
Perfectionism isn’t specific to any one group of people – however it can be exacerbated by certain environments i.e. peers, education, workplace, upbringing etc. In the veterinary sector, there is a certain pressure in that society holds vets to a particular standard i.e. they should love animals, should look and carry themselves in a certain way etc. Vet students then often use these expectations as barometers for what makes a good vet.
These societal expectations can become inextricably linked to how people see themselves which is inevitably damaging. In the campfire chat, panellist Fabian Rivers (a.k.a. DreadyVet) spoke about the fact that he has highlighted his dreadlocks as a part of who he is on social media and beyond – in his words, being known as DreadyVet shows how ‘he can still create value without being reduced down to his ethnicity’.
Vets are often stereotyped, and we all have a responsibility to humanise people working in the veterinary community.
How does perfectionism impact mental health?
Perfectionism isn’t a clinical disorder – it’s a characteristic. However, as you become more perfectionistic, this can lead you to become vulnerable to mental ill health.
There are recognised risk factors for high levels of perfectionism including for eating disorders, anxiety, and suicide. However, this is not to say that perfectionism causes any of these things as all mental health conditions are multifactorial. Excessive self-criticism, however, can often be indicative of mental health issues.
How can you support people who are perfectionists?
If you are worried about your mental health or the mental health of someone else, you should always consult a mental health professional. However, if you’re not experiencing a mental illness but would like to improve your perfectionism, there are lots of psychoeducational resources available. Talking to others about it can also help inform the way you think about yourself and others.
How can it impact our relationships?
Not only do perfectionists expect perfection from themselves, but from those around them too. This can lead to a lack of empathy, hostility, and an absence of social support. It creates a social disconnect as people deny themselves rich, rewarding, and supportive relationships.
It can also diminish trust as perfectionists always feel like nobody else will be able to meet their standards. This can easily cause fractured relationships as quite often, if someone is trying to be compassionate, a perfectionist may see this as interference and adding to the problem. This can become really damaging, especially when working in a high-pressured working environment, as when relationships start to break down, the repercussions can potentially be fatal.
- We must all try to understand that whatever we are able to achieve is within our grasp and must be prepared to not achieve certain things that we have conceptualised. We grow when we are open to change. The learning process and benefits gained from our concerted efforts to achieve something is often more valuable than the result. Enjoy the process and don’t fixate on the goal.
- Perfectionism has few benefits and many costs both for you and for others. Having high standards isn’t a bad thing but you must enjoy your successes, your failures, and be proud of yourself.
- Talk about perfectionism and know you’re not alone in your feelings. If it starts to impact your mental health, talk to a mental health professional.
- The Art of Being – Erich Fromm
- Mans Search For Meaning – Frankl
- The Art of Happiness – Tao Te Ching
- Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world – Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman
- Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Perfectionism – Sarah J. Egan, Tracey D.Wade, Roz Shafron, Martin M. Antony
- Overcoming Perfectionism: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behaviour Techniques – Sarah Egan Wade
- Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism – Thomas Greenspon
Academic papers (free to access articles from panellist Professor Andrew Hill):
Animations on Perfectionism:
If you’re currently struggling with your mental health, Vetlife is there for you 24/7 and can be reached on: 0303 040 2551. Or if you prefer, you can send them a confidential email.
The Samaritans also provide 24/7 support and can be reached on 116 123 or send a confidential email to email@example.com.