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Mental Health: The impact of perfectionism on mental health and wellbeing

The impact of perfectionism on mental health and wellbeing

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Mental health is a critical component of individual, family, community and national wellbeing and prosperity.

Our personality can have a significant impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

Perfectionism is a personality trait that can have a detrimental effect on our mental wellbeing.

What is perfectionism and what causes it?

Perfectionism is a character or personality trait characterised by setting very high standards for yourself and for others concerning how one should live and behave and on what one should achieve in life.

Perfectionism is also characterised by being highly critical of oneself when you fail to meet the exacting standards and subsequently being critical of others when they fail to ‘the standard’.

Could you be a perfectionist:

  • Do you set very high, often unrealistic goals, for most areas of your life?
  • Do you struggle with failure? Do you consider any result of your work and effort that is less than perfect as a failure?
  • How do you respond when things do not go your way? Do you become highly critical of yourself?
  • How do you respond to the failures of others? Do you feel as if people often fail to meet your standard?
  • What motivates you in life? Are you often motivated by fear of failure? Are you motivated by fear of how people will view you if you fail?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself procrastinating, delaying acting on issues because of the fear of failure?

What causes perfectionism?

  • Childhood experiences: our personalities are largely shaped by upbringing and early childhood experiences.

 Highly critical parents or caregivers, who never allow a child to fail or criticise them harshly when they do fail can cause a young person to develop traits of perfectionism.

  • Low self-esteem: if we feel like we are not good enough or not adequate, this may lead us to try and prove ourselves to others and can lead to perfectionism.
  • Unrealistic social and cultural expectations: sometimes the pressure to be ‘perfect’ is coming from our family, from friends from colleagues who set exacting standards on us.
  • The desire to please others: perfectionism may result from a compelling desire to please people, where we start to live to seek approval and acknowledgement from others.

How can perfectionism affect our mental health and wellbeing?

The pressure to maintain very high standards in how we live, in our relationships, in the work we do and the highly critical response to failure can result in many mental health challenges including:

  • Stress and burnout: perfectionism can lead to high levels of stress as you try to meet unrealistic goals.

This can eventually lead to burnout where you start to experience physical and emotional exhaustion, a negative, cynical attitude towards work and people and increased risk of errors and inefficiency which then worsen the self-criticism of perfectionism.

  • Anxiety: the fear of failure which is often the driving force or motivating influence for many perfectionists can lead to challenges with anxiety.
  • Depression: Continued failure to meet unrealistic goals can lead to feelings of depression and despondency. One may feel sad, exhausted, helpless and hopeless if one continuously fails to meet one's goals. The harsh self-criticism can also lead to sadness and despondency.
  • Relationship breakdown: Perfectionists use the same exacting standards on others as they do with themselves and they can be highly critical of other people particularly those who are close to them.

It is difficult to live or work with someone who is highly critical and judgemental. These challenging traits of perfectionism can result in breakdown of relationships at home and at work.

  • Generational anxiety: Perfectionistic, highly critical parents or caregivers will create perfectionism in their children.

Sadly they may also trigger high levels of anxiety in their children as well as low self-esteem as the children may never feel as if they are good enough for their parents.

How can I overcome perfectionism?

  • Acknowledge that you have a problem with perfectionism and acknowledge your humanity and inherent imperfection.

This will take humility, humility to accept that no one is perfect and that things will not always turn out perfectly, that things may not always go your way.

  • Be a life-long learner. Failure only remains a failure if we fail to learn from it. This also takes humility, humility to accept that we do not know everything and humility to accept failure a learning process.

This will also mean allowing those around us to also make mistakes and resisting the urge to be overly critical.

  • Fight approval addiction. Part of perfectionism stems from an addiction to the praise and admiration that we receive when we get things perfect.

 We need to aim to set goals for based on your value systems and personal growth rather than to aim for public approval and accolades.

  • Aim for excellence rather than perfection. Do the best with what you have, this may not be perfect but it will be excellent.

Many perfectionists struggle when life doesn’t do their way. Learn to be mentally flexible and adaptable. Blessed are the flexible, they will not be broken by life.

If you think that you or someone that you know may be struggling with perfectionism, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

*Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback: WhatsApp: +263714987729

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