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The Price of Perfection

"Practice! Practice! Practice!" Mother never grew tired of using that word. Every morning and night, memories of sitting on the piano stool, reciting the scales and exam pieces. As a British Born Chinese, growing up in a strict household was the norm. My parents encouraged me to go above and beyond in academia and extra circular activities. Did I enjoy playing the piano? Not enough to make a career out of it. Yet I managed to succeed. I did as I was told. I was lucky my parents weren't aiming for perfection. Yet, it felt wrong to disappoint them. Needless to say, the pressure to succeed was there alright!

Perfectionism is a multifaceted problem in the mental health world. It means the inability to accept anything short of perfect. He/she will do anything in their power to achieve flawlessness by setting high standards after high standards. To the point where it becomes unattainable. Better school grades, better salary, better lifestyle.

Evidently, we are living in an age where competing against each other is normal and emulating high achievers seems possible.

The first thing that comes to my mind is social media. The public display for perfection in work, education, relationships and lifestyle. Receiving 5-star ratings, relationship "goals", the number of "likes" and the number of followers. A vision of “the perfect life”. In the real world, these "aspirations" are damaging to human development. As success grows, positive feelings dangerously increase. Each expectation becomes harder to achieve, so we ultimately set ourselves up for failure. For perfectionists, failure is unacceptable and the unfulfilling emptiness is a recipe for depression and anxiety. For example; therapists have found a connection between heavy social media use and mental health issues. Such as repeated exposure to unrealistic body images and unattainable lifestyle goals.

Any social media sites springing to mind?!

Plenty of research suggests perfectionism is complex. Adaptive aka healthy perfectionism can motivate us closer to our goals and help us achieve our dreams. These perfectionists are not afraid to fail and failure is not the end of the world. It does not define their happiness or self-worth. On the other hand, people who are maladaptive aka unhealthy perfectionists, aim for success to prevent failure. Failure is scary and brings anxiety, and he/she will never be satisfied with themselves. The fear of failing is the worst nightmare for a perfectionist, it means to fail in life altogether. Unsurprisingly, due to "never being good enough", maladaptive perfectionists are also linked to suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorders (BDD), depression and anxiety.

Professionals are aware of this destructive trait and apply the clinical questionnaire - "Multidimensional Perfectionist Scale" to measure the strive for perfection. It includes socially prescribed perfectionism - the need for perfection in order to be accepted and approved of. For these high achievers, their self-worth depends on how others view them. Worryingly, perfectionists compare themselves to others. They harshly judge and criticise themselves with a voice in the head "you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough". Negative thoughts like these are known to cause social anxiety, dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT) is proven to be effective in tackling negative perfectionism. Simply telling the perfectionist to have lower standards does not help. Instead, looking at the mechanisms that drive the perfectionistic behaviours will uncover a depth in understanding the person. Treatment also looks at underlying beliefs surrounding the need to be perfect. Such as the fear of failure, the need to belong, the need to fit-in, the need for attention or the need to be loved. CBT teaches clients how to think and feel differently. This minimises uncomfortable feelings and further distress.

As a therapist, I apply psychotherapeutic techniques to help clients realise that failure is not the end of the world but part of experiencing life. I explore how significant past events may contribute to the crippling problem. As the client, accepting it’s OK to not be perfect, normalises the realities of life. Just because you failed an exam, it doesn’t make you a failure. Just because you didn’t get picked for the job, it doesn’t mean you’re useless. Just because you didn't get first prize, it doesn’t mean you lose in everything.

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