Hard work and high standards are usually praised in American society. But promoting perfectionism can sometimes harm people’s mental health.
Healthy perfectionists “work really hard towards ambitious goals, and have resilience to continue to strive towards those goals even when things get in the way,” Dr. Jessica Pryor, a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University and faculty member in the university’s graduate counseling program, told Fortune.
But people who take perfectionism to an unhealthy degree—what’s known as “maladaptive perfectionism“—react very differently to failure. Whether the goal is related to school, work, or personal life—any progress that is less than perfect deeply affects them.
“Individuals may become really frustrated, affected by the fact that they missed those goals, begin to ruminate on them, develop significant levels of self-criticism,” says Pryor. This can lead to a host of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and eating disorders like anorexia.
“At its worst, perfectionism can lead to suicidal ideation and suicide attempt,” says Pryor. “It’s a really lonely, painful place to be.”
Through her work at Northwestern University, Pryor aims to bring attention to maladaptive perfectionism, often disguised as a strong work ethic. More college students today say they have symptoms that are consistent with perfectionism, a combined product of social learning and heightened parental criticism, exacerbated by the rise of smartphones.
According to the American Psychological Association, the number of college students who report feeling the pressure of excessively high expectations by others increased one third between 1989 and 2016. While perfectionism is growing significantly within this younger population, it can impact anyone.
Who Does Perfectionism Affect?
Studies have shown that the problem is particularly acute among lawyers, physicians, and other high-achieving individuals, Pryor says.
“Those of us who have those natural predispositions [towards perfectionism] tend to seek out really rigorous, challenging careers,” says Pryor. “And once we’re in those really rigorous, challenging careers, we also get messages around being better than we are, and positive reinforcement for pushing really, really hard.”
Of all generations, millennials are the most suffer from the negative impacts of perfectionism, says Pryor. This could be because this generation’s parents now have the ability to monitor their kids at all hours via smart phone location trackers, creating increased anxiety about behavior and school performance (i.e. parents may ask why a child in college is in the dorms instead of at the library studying). Additionally, the more parents criticize their children, the more those children tend to push themselves to achieve in order to avoid criticism.
This is also connected to society as a whole, says Pryor. Instead of viewing failure as a negative experience, Pryor says more people should be taught to embrace mistakes as natural part of learning.
“In American society we’ve always had a strong message around work ethic and striving for ambitious goals,” she says. “I think we are doing our current young people a disservice by repeating this message, but doing so in a distorted way… we are giving a lot of messages that perfectionism is perfectly achievable if you want it enough, if you work hard enough—and that is just an illusion.”
Perfectionism can also develop as a failed coping mechanism to a preexisting mental health disorder. If you have anxiety about work performance, you may double down on your tasks to an unhealthy degree.
Spotting the Signs
Along with being a practicing psychologist and professor, Pryor studies the interpersonal implications of perfectionism in her lab. She says maladaptive perfectionists are more likely to withdraw from others, fearing their own high standards are held by everyone, and thus they’ll be judged for their imperfections.
They may also procrastinate, being so worried about failure that they refuse to begin the task at all.
“At the university level this could be a student who doesn’t turn in a paper, or doesn’t sit for an exam,” says Pryor. “In the professional world, this could be individuals who end up missing deadlines or pushing deadlines back because it’s so difficult for them to engage the task and risk failing at it.”
On the other hand, individuals may double down on work as a form of “active coping,” says Pryor. This could be “someone spending increasing amounts of time at their work, at the sacrifice of perhaps their well-being and their self-care.”
The key is to look for the individual’s motivation: Are they working extra hours because they enjoy it, or because they’re trying to avoid rejection and failure?
Overall, Pryor says perfectionists should be aware whether their actions are impairing their lives. If the answer is yes, the individual may be suffering from maladaptive perfectionism.
To cure themselves, maladaptive perfectionists can experiment with “letting go of global perfectionism,” says Pryor. This means allowing yourself to be less than perfect in parts of your life that are “lower stakes,” like organizing the kitchen cabinets.
Eventually this behavior can be extended to parts of your professional life where it’s appropriate, says Pryor. She added that this teaches that “high standards are okay, ‘But then I can calibrate them when I wish to. I don’t have to be a slave to these high standards.'”
Perfectionists can also focus more on being in the moment. “Often perfectionists are very motivated by the outcome,” says Pryor, but that could be either hours or years away, depending on the goal. If the individual is more focused on the process, and breaks the goal into smaller, more manageable pieces, this eases the path towards one’s goal.
Pryor adds that individuals should also be “celebrating the accomplishment of each step,” and avoid self-criticism along the way.
“I would say all of this sounds really straightforward, and for those who are suffering from maladaptive or unhealthy perfectionism, this is much, much harder than it sounds,” says Pryor.
She recommends maladaptive perfectionists seek help from a therapist to help along this process.
“I have many clients who say the cliché, ‘I wish I had done this a long time ago,'” says Pryor. “And I agree, you didn’t need to suffer that long alone.”