The Poison of Perfectionism

I wrote this article for my role as On-Site Director for Adolescent Counseling Services as an aid to parents of students with perfectionistic beliefs but it has helpful information for anyone struggling with perfectioinism.

“I’ve failed over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed” – Michael Jordan

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly” – Robert F. Kennedy

At Adolescent Counseling Services at PALY, the most common issue we saw students for last year was academic stress.  At the root of this is often a belief around being perfect fueled by extremely negative judgments about making mistakes and failure.  The cost of perfectionism and the resulting stress is extremely high, both emotionally and physically.  At a perfectionists core is a belief that mistakes are unacceptable and that their self-worth is dependent upon not making any, EVER.  The challenge here being that everyone makes mistakes so the perfectionist is inevitably doomed having set for themselves an unreachable goal and hanging their well-being in the balance of reaching it.  This leads to high levels of stress and I often point out to these students that perfectionism and mental health are mutually exclusive, you simply cannot have both.  Mistakes are nothing to fear and there’s no way around them, and if you react rather than learn from them they will have served no purpose other than to further eat away at your self-worth.

Perfectionism can also lead to loneliness.  Most perfectionists I have worked with will easily offer others compassion and wiggle room for mistakes and imperfections and quickly come to the aid of others, but insist on leaving themselves stranded believing that even asking for help is a sign of weakness and imperfection.  This perfect way of being I explain often keeps people away from them out of feeling intimidated and unworthy themselves because they don’t compare with you.  And that conversely when a person shows imperfection and vulnerability it actually pulls others closer in because they feel you are more human and relatable.

The reason I titled this article the “Poison” of Perfectionism is because of the release of a stress hormone called Cortisol whenever a person is experiencing distress.  So let’s talk a little about stress and the negative consequences of high doses of the stress hormone Cortisol that is released when one is under distress.  Here is an excerpt from an article in Psychology Today underlying the effect of cortisol on mental health:

“Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.”  Published on January 22, 2013 by Christopher Bergland in The Athlete’s Way

From this perspective it’s easy to see that there is a connection between stress and mental health that in all likelihood cycles one further and further down the rabbit hole of depression and anxiety.  First, the perfectionist has deeply held beliefs about their image which is not sustainable and causes high distress for them, leading to problems with mental and emotional functioning that is also not acceptable to them.  Truly a viscous cycle.  And, it’s not just mental health that is susceptible to the toxic effects of cortisol, here is another article discussing the physical effects:

“Some of the largest costs associated with perfectionism may be in terms of poor health. A longitudinal study following a sample of Canadians over 6.5 years showed that trait perfectionism predicted earlier mortality”  The Price of Perfectionism by Gordon Flett

So what can be done for the perfectionist student?  How can parents and others help them to flourish and achieve excellence without falling into the emotional choke hold of perfectionism?  First of all is to give perspective.  Help your child to understand what the ultimate goals in life are and that the journey, while challenging at times is what makes up his or her life.   That if you only focus on what you “get” at the end, there will inevitably a “next” achievement and therefore one never experiences anything but a temporary sense of satisfaction, losing sight of the rich experiences to be gained along the way, and exhausting oneself on the hamster wheel of perfectionism.  Ask yourself what messages you are sending your kids.  Are you somehow adding to the pressure?  Check in with them and ask.  One way to look at is to strive for excellence rather than perfection.  As parents you want your children to be successful, but what does that mean?  Defining happiness is an important life skill that isn’t taught in school but may be the most important question of all.  We all have the right to pursue it but many never sit down and really explore what it truly means to be happy.  I invite you now to do that with your children especially if they are struggling with perfectionism.  Just getting a healthy message from a parent can go a long way in relieving distress.

For parents of seniors specifically, as college acceptance and rejection letters roll in, help your child understand that where one door closes another opens and that to let this perceived failure result in excessive amounts of stress, and therefore Cortisol, is like salt in a wound.  It’s fine, and advised, to allow them to feel sad and disappointed but then move on, re-group and review the end goal and design a new, informed map.  There are always options and new beginnings.  As a first-time college dropout myself I can speak personally to the idea that striving for perfection is not the only path, that through perceived failures one can re-define, re-route and most importantly learn from experience and gather wisdom along the way.  Somehow, I achieved many of my goals while making plenty of mistakes and missteps but I do my best to pay attention and integrate the life lessons that are ripe for the pickin’ along the way.

Finally, here is a wonderful video on the subject by Harvard Professor Tal Ben Shahar, I invite you to take a look and watch it with any perfectionists in your family in hopes that helps to decrease stress and cortisol levels that are blocking the path to more happiness and emotional well-being for you or a loved one. 

(Tal Ben Shahar video)  “Learn to fail or fail to learn.”