Why Perfectionism Could Be Killing You
Everyone has a friend or loved one obsessed with perfection. The one who works constantly because they're utterly terrified of letting their boss down, or the mom who won't let anyone help around the house because no one else does it "right." Or perhaps you're the perfectionist in your life? It's okay. Just admit it. Because the sooner you do, the sooner you can let go of it—and all of its hefty side effects.
Case in point: Earlier this week, a new analysis in the Review of General Psychology found that perfectionism can literally ruin your life. Perfectionists are more likely to struggle with depression or anxiety, and sadly, they're more likely to commit suicide, the paper argues.
While we tend to hold up perfectionism as a sign of being a high-achiever, "the average person has very little understanding or awareness of how destructive perfectionism can be," the paper's lead author Gordon Flett, PhD, told New York magazine's Science of Us blog. For many perfectionists, underneath the outward appearance of having it together, they feel like total imposters, which can be really draining, he added.
"Perfectionists have an all-or-nothing mindset that's propelled by a crippling fear of failure. They also have what's called conditional self-worth. They think 'I am only a good person if I can achieve these things,'" explains Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. Since true perfection is impossible, "you can see how someone with that mindset could get to a dark place."
Also of note: while the suicide rate is consistently about four times higher among men, women are much more likely to be textbook perfectionists, Lombardo adds.
There are other negative health effects of perfectionism, too, Lombardo adds. "This all-or-nothing mindset can manifest in surprising ways." For example, people with anorexia can be struggling with perfectionism, but obese people are sometimes perfectionists as well.
"They think 'well, I messed up and had one cookie today. I'm not perfect, so I might as well give up.' With this there is no spectrum, it is literally all or nothing," Lombardo says.
Interestingly, perfectionists are also more likely to have chronic or unexplained fatigue and pain syndromes like fibromyalgia. "A perfectionist says 'I don't have time to take care of myself. I must be the perfect mother and the perfect boss,' and their bodies just give out," Lombardo explains.
And then, of course, perfectionism causes an unbearable amount of stress, which has been linked to everything from heart disease to irritable bowel syndrome.
So how can you help a perfectionist in your life? Here are some ideas from Lombardo.
Don't say, "it doesn't have to be perfect"
That is the worst thing you can say to a perfectionist. Instead, highlight their strengths and what you like about them, Lombardo says. For example, your perfectionist sister has a meltdown over a work screw-up. Focus on how you're proud of her no matter what, rather than telling her to stop expecting perfection.
Get rid of the word "should"
Perfectionists are obsessed with this word: "I should be the best!" Instead, help your friend or loved one ask why should? For example,help her focus on what what she wants from the party she's planning (to have fun) versus what she wants to avoid (everyone to think she has horrible taste).
Reminder: It's not failure, it's data
For perfectionists more prone to the "nothing" side of the spectrum, you can help them overcome their fear of failure by helping them pinpoint problems. They might say, "I tried going to the gym, but I never had time so I just can't work out." Alright, so if you know that's not working, what can you learn from that? Maybe you can go for a walk at lunch and after dinner? In other words, always throw out ideas.