In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher and author Brené Brown describes herself as “a recovering perfectionist and aspiring to be good enough.” Perfection, Brown writes, is not about self-improvement. “Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfection. [It] it is an unattainable goal. “
The bestseller will relaunch this year as a 10th anniversary edition, but a decade of perfectionism is a scourge on physical and mental health as it was then. Research has found links between perfectionistic behavior and mental health conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to eating disorders, chronic fatigue, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
A historical study of 40,000 college students in the UK, US and Canada between 1989 and 2017 found that perfectionist traits are more prevalent in young people today than 30 years ago. According to research, the perception among young people that they need to look perfect to get approved has increased by a third. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, the researchers who led the study, attributed the emergence to a society that puts young people in competition with each other.
Author and journalist Eleanor Ross understands the self-defeating nature of perfectionism all too well. “I always tried to be the best, for no reason, really,” she tells Positive News. “He needed to achieve and be successful.”
Fighting for unrealistic goals led Ross to exhaustion and a suicide attempt in 2019, and later on to write his next book, Good Enough: The Myth of Success and How to Celebrate the Joy in Average. The work, to be published in 2021, explores how it is “better to be average and happy than successful and miserable.”
Aiming for high and unrealistic standards and then feeling worthless if you don’t meet them, or feeling dissatisfied if you do, are some of the key characteristics of perfectionism, explains Dr Fuschia Sirois, a psychology researcher at the University of Sheffield.
Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no perfect
It’s not so much the standards themselves that are the problem, says Sirois, but our response by not achieving them. “It’s human nature to push beyond where we are and push ourselves,” he says. “But when you don’t, it’s okay. It’s okay to say, ‘I didn’t get there; I’m average in my performance in this area. ‘
Ross says sticking to lower standards has been a learning process. “I’m trying to get more comfortable saying it doesn’t have to be 100 percent all the time. I had to unlearn many traits. “
Part of this is about learning to be kinder to yourself. “We know that perfectionists have little self-compassion, so learning self-compassionate responses is beneficial,” explains Sirois. “Instead of saying, ‘I should have done this,’ say to yourself, ‘It’s human nature to make mistakes or not always reach my goals, and I’m not happy with that, but that’s okay.’ You are being kind to yourself instead of self-deprecating – you are viewing your failures as part of the human condition. “
And has Ross found peace with being average at something? “Painting. I’m surprisingly bad at painting. But I let myself be terrible, because it lets the stress out.”
Three ways to find the joy of being average
1. Agree to be an expert in all trades
Happy to be competent, but not an expert? That could open up a wide range of interests and hobbies to experiment with, rather than working on just one to excel at it.
2. Enjoy the everyday
Having the habit of appreciating the ordinary things around you helps lift your spirits and also improves your overall mental health.
3. Appreciate the health benefits
From a health standpoint, being normal is usually a good thing. Chronic diseases or conditions are often associated with statistical infrequencies.
Image: Clem Onojeghuo