Opinion: perfection is an illusion, but perfectionists still waste time and energy chasing a fantasy that can never be caught

Like most personality traits, perfectionist tendencies range from healthy to dysfunctional behaviour, with most people typically lying somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Indeed, there is a fine line between healthy and irrational perfectionism with the latter being driven by a person setting exceedingly high expectations of themselves which is often reinforced by a fear of failure or disappointing others. This increases the individual's levels of anxiety and can result in poor personal mental health outcomes.

This is in contrast to people who pursue excellence in a healthy way and take genuine pleasure in setting and achieving goals above the norm. In a nutshell, the healthy perfectionist has drive, while the unhealthy perfectionist is driven.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Reignite, author and broadcaster Edel Coffey talks about the need to be or appear to be perfect

A growing body of evidence suggests that unhealthy perfectionism can be emotionally, socially, and psychologically damaging. It can cause overwhelming suffering, in which the person can become overly self-critical, focusing only on their perceived flaws and mistakes rather than acknowledging their successes.

Feelings of shame or guilt when the person makes a simple mistake are all too common, with many people unable to complete tasks due to endless procrastination, resulting in underperformance. Indeed, unhealthy perfectionism is often driven by a person’s vulnerability and an unquenchable need for external validation.

Benchmarking our lives against other people’s personal and professional successes is a recipe for disaster. In today’s society, this is often magnified through the use of social media in which many people showcase a carefully curated fairy-tale lifestyle of wealth, success, and the picture-perfect family. If failures, frustrations, sufferings, and sorrows are whitewashed from society through the lens of social media and we are subjected only to a litany of achievements and the mythical story of the perfect life, then the baseline for the perfectionist to accomplish any level of success becomes even more unrealistic and unattainable.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, how selfies show what it means to be human in the 21st century

If you identify as a perfectionist, or have certain perfectionist tendencies, it is likely that you will relate to at least one of these four common perfectionism traps.

Self-perfectionism

This is a double-edged sword in which a person is internally obsessed with their imperfections and therefore lock themselves into a rigid mindset where the phenomenon of failure haunts them as they strive to present a perfect persona to the world.

Social perfectionism

This type of perfectionism is fraught with counterintuitive behaviour and is bourne from a belief by the perfectionist that society should comply with their rules, and that they have the right to control the behaviour of others to suit their own social agenda. This obsessive control is unhealthy, often producing dysfunctional relationships, which increase the likelihood of the perfectionist becoming socially isolated.

The healthy perfectionist has drive, but the unhealthy perfectionist is driven.

Educational perfectionism

While learning new skills and knowledge can sometimes be painstakingly slow and frustrating, it can be a dangerous time for the perfectionist. Their inner self critic finds itself centre stage, harshly condemning the protagonist for any failures or flaws. This rigid mindset can produce extremely negative consequences which can range from mild levels of anxiety to stopping the perfectionist from pursuing any further learning or career opportunities.

The comparative trap

This is when we continually and relentlessly compare our own achievements to others and constantly find that ours are below standard. Call it self-sabotage, but perfectionists have a tendency towards choosing very accomplished people to compare themselves to.

In reality, perfection is an illusion, but perfectionists sadly waste time and energy chasing a fantasy that can never be caught. It is important that the perfectionist adopts effective strategies that can help manage the symptoms and lessen the burden of perfectionism. Here are some to consider

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Siofra Mulqueen explores the world of meditation and mindfulness

Be mindful of your thinking

Mindfulness has often been offered as the antidote to perfectionism. It helps when we acknowledge and learn to accept that imperfection whether we like it or not is the 'norm’. When we become more mindful of our perfectionist thinking, especially self-criticism, we can begin to actively reflect on our responses to the challenges, obstacles and setbacks we face in the present moment. It is our responses that influence our well-being. Writing down our thoughts is a useful exercise in detaching our emotion from our thinking so we can be more reflective in considering our position.

Banish the need to be perfect

By giving ourselves permission to commit human error, we can use our mistakes as learning opportunities to emotionally grow and mature. When we witness that our life does not explode when mistakes are made, and that the act of acknowledging mistakes often endears us more to others, we have begun a new journey of freedom and self-discovery.

Practice gratitude

Perfectionists focus on what they haven’t achieved in their lives, but never take the opportunity to celebrate success. The practice of gratitude helps us to appreciate the little things that we take for granted, like a colleague getting us a cup of coffee, or a rainbow appearing in the sky or the sound of birds chirping outside our window. It is the celebration of each small moment practiced daily which increases our ability to see the good in nearly every situation.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ