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The Perfectionism Trap

Perfectionism is so pervasive that there’s a test to measure it: the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale

Christina Caron Published 01.05.24, 06:53 AM

Yuxin Sun, a psychologist in Seattle, US, sees a lot of clients at her group practice who insist they aren’t perfectionists. “‘Oh, I’m not perfect. I’m far from perfect,’” they tell her.

But perfectionism isn’t about being the best at any given pursuit, Sun said, “It’s the feeling of never arriving at that place, never feeling good enough, never feeling adequate.” And that can make for a harsh internal voice that belittles and chastises us.


Perfectionism is so pervasive that there’s a test to measure it: the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. When researchers looked at how college students have responded to the scale’s questions over time, they found that rates of perfectionism surged in recent decades, skyrocketing between 2006 and 2022.

Thomas Curran, an associate professor of psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK who led the analysis, said the type of perfectionism with the steepest rise — socially prescribed perfectionism — was rooted in the belief that others expect you to be perfect. Today’s young person is more likely to score much higher on this measure than someone who took the test decades ago. There could be a number of causes for the uptick: increasing parental expectations, school pressures, the ubiquity of social media influencers
and advertising.

The feeling of not being good enough or that “my current life circumstances are inadequate or not sufficient” has created an “unrelenting treadmill”, Curran said, where there is “no joy in success and lots of self-criticism”.

Regardless of whether you consider yourself a perfectionist or not, experts say that there are a number of small things you can try to keep your inner critic in check.

Get some distance

Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in the US and
the author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters
and How to Harness It
, said a process called distancing is his “first line of defence” against negative thoughts.

Distancing is a way of zooming out on our inner chatter to engage with it differently. If you’re agonising over something in the middle of the night, for example, that’s a cue to “jump into the mental time-travel machine”, he said.

Begin by imagining: “How are you going to feel about this tomorrow morning?” Anxieties often seem less severe in the light of day.

The time period could also be further in the future. Will the fact that you stumbled a few times during your big presentation today truly matter three months from now?

Another way to practise distancing is to avoid first-person language when thinking about something that upsets you.

Instead of saying: “I cannot believe I made that mistake. It was so stupid of me,” someone might gain a new perspective by saying: “Christina, you made a mistake. You’re feeling bad about it right now. But you aren’t going to feel that way forever. And your mistake is something that has happened to a lot of other people.”

In Kross’ research, he found that when people used the word “you” or their own name instead of saying“I”, and started observing their feelings as though they were an impartial bystander, it “was like flipping a switch”. It resulted in an internal dialogue that was more constructive and positive than that of the people who spoke to themselves in the first person. A number of studies have reported similar benefits to assuming a more detached point of view.

Accept what’s good enough

Curran, who writes about his struggles in The Perfection Trap, explained he has worked to embrace “good enough” over perfectionism and its accompanying negative thoughts.

With perfectionism it can feel as though nothing is ever “enough”. Accepting that
something is “good enough” requires letting go, Curran said. Working nights, weekends and holidays had become a part
of his identity, but after the birth of his son he scaled back his hours, which became extremely “liberating”.

His past decisions were driven by an anxious need to better himself, he added. Now, when thinking about how to spend his time, he tries to focus on the things that bring him joy, purpose and meaning.

It’s a philosophy that’s shared by Canadian physician and trauma expert Dr Gabor Maté, who said on a recent podcast that the feeling of being legitimate or worthy needs to come from within, lest people “sacrifice their playfulness, their joyfulness” for external validation.

Practise self-compassion

In general, perfectionism is usually a survival strategy — it’s “like an armour that you wear” to feel less vulnerable, Sun said. So don’t beat yourself up for having perfectionist tendencies.

But if that armour is weighing you down, it may be time to thank your perfectionism for its service and move on, Sun said.


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