The rise of perfectionism – and the harm it’s doing us all | Mental health

About a decade ago, Thomas Curran, a psychology student, travelled to Australia to embark on a postdoctoral fellowship and was crushed with anxiety, exhaustion and panic attacks. Beyond making the round-the-world flight, he’d really pushed himself hard to make it there. Curran is from Wellingborough, a town in the east Midlands, and grew up “without much money”. His mum used to work as a receptionist at the Hind Hotel, his dad was a construction worker who was famous locally (Curran tells me with a touch of pride) for riding the statue of a deer mounted above the hotel’s entrance. As a teen, Curran thought he’d go into construction, too, but spurred on by the New Labour education drive, he chose university. Now he was far beyond the expectations of his youth – and surely well on the road to success in academia – yet found himself in pieces: “a failure”.

With all going south Down Under, Curran returned to the UK. At a less prestigious institution, the pressure eased. He dropped his competitive streak and decided “to stop trying to please other people”. Able to let his mind wander, he began to look more forensically at perfectionism, a trait he recognised in himself and – until that point – had rather celebrated. After all, surely it was perfectionism that enabled him to meet the high standards he placed upon himself and rise from his working-class roots? And surely it was the same impulse that kicked him out of bed when he felt crushed by self-criticism, and pushed him through panic attacks to keep striving? “I was genuinely of the belief that perfectionism was the one thing that was holding me up when everything around me was collapsing,” he says. “But it was actually perfectionism that was creating those problems.”

Perfectionism, according to psychologists, can blind us to our achievements while enforcing impeccable – often impossible – standards upon ourselves. It can be inflicted from within (self-oriented), projected on to others (other-oriented) or absorbed from those around us (socially prescribed). Trying (and failing) to meet these expectations can be destructive and perfectionism can make someone vulnerable to anxiety, depression and suicide. As a trait, it had certainly caused Curran plenty of anguish, but as a research subject, it turned out to be a good match. In 2017, he co-authored a far-reaching study with Dr Andrew Hill that demonstrated that perfectionism had been steadily rising since the 1980s. Recent generations of young people, he wrote in the Psychological Bulletin, “perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves”.

It was, as Curran would later describe it, a “hidden epidemic” that plagued the western world; an indictment of neoliberal economics and the ultra-competitive, individualistic culture that has come to envelop us. It struck a chord, and Curran was invited to test his nerves once more and present a Ted Talk on the subject – “Our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse” – which has over 3m views. Today Curran, 35, is an associate professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) and has published a book, The Perfection Trap. In it, he examines the scale of the problem and how it can wreak misery on us not just as individuals, but as a planet. Striving for perfection, Curran argues, is harmful; can we therefore learn to settle for less?

We met last month in the lobby of the Marshall Building at the LSE, a concrete sanctuary with a grand spiral staircase and a studious hum; notes and laptops are huddled over, coffee sipped, pens nibbled. In another life, Curran could have become a PE teacher (he originally studied sport psychology) and he carries himself well. He’s smartly dressed in a crisp white shirt. He speaks with composure, but admits that the university is still somewhere he feels a little out of place. To be there at all is something he feels fortunate about, even more so as time passes. “I think I’m probably one of the last generations who can look back at their degree and say it is something that elevated them in the workplace,” he says. “I look out at the students and the world of work now, and it’s just changed unrecognisably in the past 10 years.”

This precise shift, says Curran, is moulding our personalities, driving the rising tide of perfectionism. At its core is a widening gulf between expectations and reality. The effort required to score entry to the “middle-class utopia” has increased exponentially. Curran, who received three Ds at A-level while most of his students now sport four A*s, is a case in point (as is the fact that he is yet to become a homeowner). Perfectionism is a subconscious internalisation of a system that demands ever higher standards of those who want to participate in it. This has intensified as growth-dependent economies – particularly the more advanced ones – deliver diminishing returns. You can play politics with the numbers, cry avocado toast as much as you like, but millennials, as the Financial Times’s data columnist John Burn-Murdoch recently noted, are the most educated generation in history and this is yet to translate into economic success. Here in the UK, home ownership among millennials is 23% below where boomers were at the same age (for non-graduates, the figure is even worse). The pandemic and cost-of-living crisis has further hardened existing disparities.

No wonder it’s messing with our heads. Curran uses the analogy of an airport, a temple of aspiration lined with Rolex ads, luxury shops and images that depict wealth, glamour and the romance of transatlantic travel. “It’s like you’ve made it,” he says. Yet the experience being beamed back at you is a far cry from the actual experience of being crammed between an out-of-service toilet, a beer-drenched stag-do and a 10-deep queue for Pret. “It’s a microcosm of what it feels like to live a life in which you’re told to work hard to have this good standard of living, and instead young people are finding it hard to get houses, and stable and secure jobs. They’re in a lot of debt… it’s just not the vision of the future they were promised.”

Instead of directing this frustration outwards, says Curran, we’re told “You didn’t grind hard enough, or hustle hard enough.” It was the 1950s when the psychoanalyst Karen Horney described the “tyranny of the shoulds” – defining the inner turmoil we feel when pursuing the elusive idealised version of ourselves. Today’s world is shoulds-on-steroids; one can only imagine what Horney would have felt about Instagram. The self-help industry, life coaches, personal trainers, the cults of positive thinking, manifestation, study drugs, all these contemporary trends capitalise on the mainstreaming of perfectionism. The rise in body-image disorders and cosmetic surgery – which correlate with the use of social media – reflect the increasingly extreme efforts we will employ to perfect ourselves. Data analysis by Curran shows that of all the forms of perfectionism it is socially prescribed perfectionism that has had the most rapid ascendance. It began at the very moment when YouTube, Myspace and Facebook went mainstream.

Delve into the messy web of perfectionism and there “are all sorts of layers and nuance,” says Curran, which “we don’t talk about enough”. Those with minority identities are far more likely to face institutional, social and cultural barriers to success – and often feel the need to overcompensate as a result. Rising parental expectations (which can be a form of other-oriented perfectionism) are another pressure linked to perfectionism in students – and again, a culture of striving is common among immigrant communities. Women are more prone to perfectionism than men and this can shape their progress in the workplace. Any environment where we feel out of place or in competition with our peers can provoke perfectionist thinking; and that environment is increasingly inescapable. Perfectionism, however soul-destroying it can be, is an attempt to get ahead in a culture that tells us that who we are is never enough.

Perfectionism may be a poison, but to many it is also the antidote. As if suffering from some sort of Stockholm syndrome, perfectionism is put on a pedestal, treated with awe and respect. You need only look at our cultural greats to see why it is considered our “favourite flaw”. We celebrate icons for the intensity of their struggle, their uncompromising commitment to flawlessness. Claude Monet, on the eve of an exhibition, famously vandalised a set of critically lauded paintings he felt were lacking – a true artiste! Charlie Chaplin insisted on 342 takes for one shot in City Lights – why the hell not? Stanley Kubrick, when filming The Shining, had a typist repeatedly tap out “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” so as to be absolutely certain that the sound recording was authentic to each distinct letter – totally normal behaviour.

Yet the curse of perpetual dissatisfaction hides in plain sight. It is not just the likes of Curran who have found themselves dismayed and self-flagellating at a moment which should have been filled with pride. Victoria Pendleton, when interviewed in 2008 after winning six cycling world championship titles and Olympic gold, told the Guardian: “I just want to prove that I am really good at something. And I haven’t quite done that yet – at least not to myself.” Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple (who famously made his family endure weeks of dinner-table discussion simply to choose the right dishwasher) was notorious for his tantrums, shouting and swearing at employees when their efforts did not suffice. Serena Williams, arguably history’s greatest tennis player, once described staying up all night as a child in tears as she tried to write the alphabet perfectly. “That’s always been me,” she recalled.

And there is disagreement among psychologists as to whether a touch of perfectionism is actually a good thing. After all, 23 grand slams… The Shining… Don Hamachek, an American psychologist, wrote a paper in the 1970s that distinguished between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism (a healthy perfectionist being someone who is committed to striving, but whose self-esteem is not crushed by failure). Dr Paul Hewitt, who has studied perfectionism for three decades, described the notion of healthy perfectionism to Curran as a “pernicious myth… an oxymoron”. Curran is inclined to share this position.

For him, our celebration of perfectionism is “survivor bias” – what happens when we only hear the stories of the winners – and in his book provides plenty of evidence that illustrates why for most of us it provides little benefit. For example, one recent meta-analysis of workers found no link between performance and self-oriented perfectionism at all (so, um, take a lunch break). Perfectionists, Curran writes, “are hopeless overstrivers” and, in staying up late, neglecting self-care and pushing themselves too hard mentally and physically, are prone to burnout. When the dust settles, perfectionists often have little more to show for their pain than those who go easy on themselves.

It doesn’t end there. Curran’s collaborator, Dr Andy Hill, has observed that perfectionism not only diminishes our capacity to succeed, but actively obstructs us from trying in the first place. In one experiment Hill challenged cyclists to race against themselves, setting a goal that should have been comfortable for them to achieve. On completion, he told them they had failed. The cyclists (picture pelotons of tearful mamils), were then asked to have another stab at it. Those that had scored low for self-oriented perfectionism put in the same effort (or a little more) but those who scored high for perfectionism saw their performance plummet the second time round. They simply gave up. Perfectionists experience such profound feelings of guilt and shame on failure that they withhold effort to avoid facing it.

Perfectionism is a lonely, isolating trait, but Curran hopes that we can address it collectively. The self-help industry might suggest otherwise, but it is not something we can solve as individuals. While other authors might provide a checklist for personal accountability Curran is determined to follow through with his social critique. “There are pathways out of this if we choose to organise society in a way that prioritises human needs, rather than economic needs,” he says. Progress should be measured in metrics that measure wellness, not GDP. A basic income would create financial stability and personal freedom without the pressure to constantly justify ourselves. Curran sees glimmers of hope in movements like the great resignation and “quiet quitting”. Younger generations, he points out, are increasingly unwilling to be blinded to reality, even as they hustle to succeed within it.

Some will see a radicalism to these propositions, but Curran is reluctant to over-politicise his message. He sees hope in more people simply discussing and identifying how pressures and insecurities can manifest – and where that truly comes from. “We need to recognise the societal structures that are impacting these feelings and confront them,” he says. “To talk about them. To see that this is a bigger issue than me feeling like a person who is never enough.” As far as individuals are concerned, Curran argues, the most powerful thing we can do is see the flaws in the system, accept ourselves for who we are – not what we have or achieve, and believe that there is such a thing as “good enough”. Life, after all, is imperfect.

The Perfection Trap: The Power of Good Enough in a World That Always Wants More by Thomas Curran (Cornerstone Press, £22) or for £19.36.

A Guardian masterclass, Understanding Perfectionism and Impostor Syndrome with Thomas Curran, is on 8 June

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