Toxic Perfectionism and its Impact on Youth
By: Sanjana Dash
Are you prone to redoing things until you’re completely satisfied? Making mistakes is not an option for you. Your goal is to reach your full potential in everything you do. Then yes, you are a perfectionist. Nevertheless, too much of something can be harmful. In today’s highly competitive world, toxic perfectionism in youth is on the rise.
What is Perfectionism?
Modern society is experiencing a rise in perfectionism. Contrary to popular belief, perfectionism has less to do with perfecting things or tasks. Rather, it’s about striving for excellence.
Perfectionism aims to become a better version of oneself or, more accurately, to transcend an imperfect self. Striving for perfection makes us imagine ourselves scaling. It’s like climbing a mountain. When we reach the top, we believe that people will see how valuable we are and we will be worth something.
The problem with perfectionism is that, soon after achieving that summit, we are sent back down again to the lowlands of insecurity and shame. This leads us to start all over again till this cycle continues to become toxic.
What is Toxic Perfectionism?
To begin with, perfectionism refers to having too many expectations and constantly trying to meet them. If your expectations aren’t met to the utmost, you feel dissatisfied. While Perfectionism exists in everyone to an extent, toxic perfectionism in youth is a growing concern.
Perfection without a sense of reality is toxic perfectionism. Perfectionists like these set unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. They view a deviation from these standards as the end of the world. And it comprises three factors:
1) Expecting Yourself to be Perfect: You set high goals for yourself, don’t you? The process and outcome of achieving them keep you on the run, worrying and anxious. This prevents you from taking a moment to enjoy yourself.
2) Expecting Others to be Perfect: The ripple effect continues when you start expecting others to meet your standards as well. This further impacts your relationships. Who would want to be with someone who’s always demanding and unhappy?
3) Thinking that Others Expect you to be Perfect: It is likely that you have always performed well and received many accolades throughout your career. Others have always looked up to you. But you feel compelled not to make any mistakes. There is no doubt that this is the most stressful factor. You are constantly under pressure to meet people’s expectations. And this gives rise to toxic perfectionism.
Note: The above factors are explained in detail in the following section ( How Do We Measure Toxic Perfectionism in Youth?)
How Do We Measure Toxic Perfectionism in Youth?
There are three components of perfectionism:
1) Self-Oriented Perfectionism: These individuals set impossible standards for themselves and are unwavering in their commitment to achieving perfection. To steer clear of failures, they comprehensively evaluate themselves. For example: “I strive to be as perfect as I can be” or “I must work to my full potential at all times”.
2) The Socially-Prescribed Perfectionist: These individuals believe that others expect them to be always perfect. Therefore, they are always trying to impress others at all times. For example: “Will I be able to meet people’s expectations?” or “How will people react if I fail to deliver as expected?”
3) The other-Oriented Perfectionist: These people demand high-performance standards from others. Failure to comply agitates them. For example: “I expect someone to do something precisely the way I want it done”. These people spare no room for any mistakes from anyone.
In each of these components, the key difference is not the behavioural pattern per se but the object to whom perfectionist behaviour is directed.
Difference between Toxic and Healthy Perfectionism
Signs of Toxic Perfectionism:
1) They are never satisfied: Regardless of what these perfectionists do, they are always unhappy with the results. Their pursuit of excellence prevents them from enjoying their achievements.
2) Expecting others to match their standards: It is common for such individuals to expect others to be just as perfect as they are. Any deviation from their ideal standards agitates them.
3) No room for mistakes exists: Flaws and shortcomings are unacceptable to these perfectionists. It is essential for them that every minute detail adheres to the set standards.
4) They equate likeability with perfection: These individuals believe that people like them only because they are perfectionists. They think people will judge and look down on them if they fail to meet their standards.
5) They cannot make decisions: They cannot make decisions because they don’t know what’s best for them. It is difficult for them to step outside their comfort zone and try something new.
Ways to Reduce the Ever-Growing Rate of Toxic Perfectionism:
The French writer Voltaire rightly stated, “Perfect is the enemy of good”. Indeed, it is true. Here are some ways to overcome toxic perfectionism:
1) Identify your tendencies: A key component of overcoming toxic perfectionism is becoming aware of your persistent tendencies towards perfection.
2) Focus on the Positives: Does your life follow the example of who remembers the second man who walked on the moon? If so, then you’re headed the wrong way. We each have a different journey that is far more important than the destination itself.
3) Allow yourself to make mistakes: How else will you learn? A few errors won’t affect your life. But refusing to learn from them would. It’s natural to commit mistakes because it means you tried. Remember the first time you rode a bicycle? Didn’t you fall a few times before learning to balance correctly? Or that time when you started cooking. Did you make the best dishes or gradually learnt how to master them?
4) Set achievable goals: Don’t try to accomplish too much at once. Taking it step by step makes it more accessible. This will help reduce unnecessary stress and extra work.
5) Be open to criticism: Perfectionists generally have low self-esteem because they tend to take criticism personally. Take constructive criticisms in stride and work on them instead.
6) Try to avoid procrastination: It is common for perfectionists to procrastinate because they are so intent on being perfect that they cannot begin anything. This causes them to procrastinate, which ultimately affects their work and attitude.
7) Consider going to therapy: The best option is always to seek professional assistance. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is recommended to better deal with toxic perfectionist tendencies.
What is it that sets you apart from the rest? Aiming for perfection would only drag one into the rut of excellence in stagnancy. Would you rather always excel or try to do things differently? An excellent example of toxic perfectionism was shown in the movie Black Swan from 2010.
In her pursuit of perfection, the protagonist loses her identity in her desperate attempt to become the best. When your work or position starts defining who you are, that’s a red flag. We must strive to make our mark rather than run behind consistent excellence. Therefore, toxic perfectionism in youth must be curbed before it takes over the world. To break this cycle of toxic perfectionism, we must become more accepting and forgiving of our limitations.