What does it mean to be a perfectionist?
Perfectionism is often perceived as a positive trait that should enhance your chances of achieving success, either in your personal life or professional career. When you think of a perfectionist, you probably think of someone who is meticulous and methodical in everything they do – they exhibit high levels of organisation and they aim to achieve high goals.
Now these qualities do sound admirable – after all, from childhood we’re always told to do our best and a high value is usually placed on academic successes. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this mentality, however, what most people don’t think of when they think of perfectionism, is how easily it can take a toll on your mental health.
If you are constantly striving for perfection then the chances are you’re also very self-critical which could make you susceptible to what is known as socially prescribed perfectionism.1 This means that you measure your social worth by your successes and aim for perfection to receive validation and approval. In this context, a perfectionist may be prone to extremely self-critical behaviour and believe that others are judging them by their own exceptionally high standards.
For example, if you were to perform poorly in a test, you might feel a bit disappointed and deflated but ultimately you would pick yourself up and acknowledge that these things can happen and use it as a lesson going forward. However, if you’re a perfectionist, this type of failure can feel all-consuming and inspire a range of negative thoughts and feelings that can be difficult to dismiss.
How does toxic perfectionism impact your mental health?
Now that I’ve discussed the mindset that often accompanies toxic perfectionism, it’s easy to see why perfectionists are often more vulnerable to mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and low mood. The pressure to not only succeed, but to continue to do so indefinitely can be a little like running on a hamster wheel – eventually, if you don’t get off you’re either going to collapse of exhaustion or the wheel is going to break.
That’s not to say that self-criticism is an outright terrible thing – we all have an inner voice that analyses our actions and evaluates our behaviour and this can be a good thing. It might prevent us from making a mistake, talk us out of a poor decision or keep us motivated to overcome a personal challenge. However, if this inner critic is constantly berating you like an angry parent, it can easily take a toll and lead to negative thoughts and feelings.
Studies are now starting to investigate the extent of these unhappy emotions, unearthing some unpleasant statistics. In a meta-analysis looking at more than 40,000 American, Canadian and British college students between 1989 and 2016, it was found that not only did the proportion of students exhibiting perfectionist qualities increase, but that toxic perfectionism was often linked with clinical depression, eating disorders and even premature death.2
Scary, but arguably the biggest obstacle hovering over your shoulder if you’re a perfectionist is stress. Stress, in the short-term, might be able to keep you motivated but, in the long-term, it can be disastrous not only for your mental health, but also your physical health too. Your immune function, digestive health, sleep patterns and diet can all be impacted by stress which can often cause a vicious cycle as your physical symptoms exacerbate your already raised stressed levels.
The biggest thing about stress and perfectionism though, is that both of them aren’t sustainable. Remember that hamster on the wheel? Well what happens when the wheel does break or you do eventually collapse?
The link between perfectionism and burnout syndrome
Toxic perfectionism just isn’t sustainable for a number of reasons, but mainly because the goal you are aiming for is unattainable. Failure is an unavoidable part of life and a barrier that all of us are eventually going to encounter at some point – in fact, it can even be a good thing as it gives us an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.
However, as I mentioned earlier, if you’re a perfectionist failure is something to be feared and avoided at all costs and, when you do eventually confront it, it can result in what is known as ‘burnout syndrome.’ You’ve probably heard of the phrase being ‘burnt out’ but burnout syndrome often relates to a range of emotions that occur as a result of chronic stress – something that most perfectionist that exhibit toxic behaviour suffer from.
Think of burnout as being the scenario where the hamster does finally fall off the wheel. In the long-term, stress can seriously damage your energy levels and when you do finally find yourself wobbling a little bit, instead of picking yourself up, you suddenly crash. If you’re burnt out, you’re probably suffering from feelings of fatigue and are struggling to motivate yourself when it comes to your current role. Perhaps you have encountered a setback and it has shaken you and, in an effort to avoid encountering it again, you’re instinctively procrastinating.
So, how do you overcome burnout syndrome? Or rather, how do you cope with self-critical behaviour in general? I’m glad you asked as I’m about to take a look at a few solutions to tackle this problem!
How can you cope with self-critical thoughts?
When it comes to silencing your inner critic it can be difficult as often this way of thinking has been ingrained into you for years. It’s going to take time and patience but it is possible to overcome that nagging voice and most experts seem to agree that self-compassion is the way forward.
What is self-compassion though? Well, simply put, self-compassion is exactly what it sounds like – showing yourself some patience and understanding. It’s easy to become swept up in work obligations and family responsibilities which means that our own health and mental wellbeing take second, third or even fourth place! This really shouldn’t be the case though, which is why I’m going to outline some of the ways you can show yourself a bit more compassion.
1 – Take a moment and breathe – If you’re focusing all your attention on work plans, assignments and meetings then you’re probably not setting much time aside for yourself and any ‘me-time’ you do get, is probably spent worrying about the work you should be doing. That’s why it’s important to set aside some time to breathe – quite literally! As I explore in my blog, ‘Breathing tips to relieve stress’ practicing some deep breathing techniques when you feel overwhelmed can go a long way towards calming yourself down and combatting anxious thoughts.
2 – Practice mindful meditation – Mindful meditation is a great way of acknowledging and processing your thoughts as it encourages you to be focused in the moment rather than thinking about the past and future tense. It’s a great way of relaxing and promoting a sense of inner calm, plus studies have found that it’s extremely helpful when it comes to tackling stress!3 There’s never been a better or more convenient time to start getting involved with this practice either as there are so many options out there, with downloadable apps such as Calm offering 5 or 10 minute sessions that are easy to pack into a busy schedule.
3 – Distract those negative thoughts – If you feel as though your inner critic is shouting a bit too loudly, one of the best things you can do is distract yourself. Go for a run, engage in a social activity with your friends or read a book – anything that will take your mind to other places rather than honing in on any negativity. Remember, self-criticism isn’t always rational and once you realise that you can easily pick apart any outrageously negative thoughts with more realistic, logical statements. Instead of dwelling on these thoughts, keep active and avoid becoming isolated or sedentary.
4 – Be realistic about your goals – All of us want to achieve our goals but it’s important to realise what is within your capabilities and what is not. You, physically and mentally, cannot do everything and while a stubborn part of yourself might want to try, trust me, it’s better that sometimes you compromise. There’s nothing wrong with striving to be better or to overcome a challenge but you need to think realistically about what you’re taking on, whether it’s an increase in workload or a new project, and assess how you’re going to cope. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying the N-O word once in a while, especially if it’s giving you more time to focus on yourself!
5 – Talk to someone! – If you’re struggling to cope with stress or other negative emotions, then it’s really important that you speak to someone, whether it’s a friend, loved one, colleague or even a healthcare professional. Bottling up your emotions is never a good idea and may only end up making the problem worse as, on top of stress and anxiety, you’ll also have to deal with feelings of isolation. You might not want to unload all of your problems on someone you care about but the very act of giving a voice to your concerns and worries can provide a release and it’s possible that the person you talk to might be able to offer a new perspective or solution or simply reassurance.
How herbal remedies can help
If you’re struggling to cope with stress and feel as though you’re putting yourself under too much pressure, you could try a herbal remedy like Stress Relief Daytime. This soothing combination of Valerian and Hops can help to relax the central nervous system, promoting feelings of calm and enabling you to cope better with emotions like stress and anxiety.
However, if low mood is becoming more of a problem for you, it might be better to try our St John’s Wort Hyperiforce. Please be aware though, that this remedy is contraindicated with a variety of supplements and medications so always read the product information leaflet very closely!
Both of these remedies are great for tackling mild symptoms but if you feel as though you’re truly struggling to cope and your mental wellbeing is being seriously impacted, then the best thing to do would be to speak to your doctor. They should be able to offer more guidance when it comes to treatments such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and other options.