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Perfectionism – A toxic trait

by Luqmaan Rawat
Being a perfectionist can lead to one feeling overburdened Photo Pexels

South Africa – Perfectionism can be defined as the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. To achieve this, one often must fixate on imperfections, trying to control situations or being critical of oneself. What makes it dangerous is that as one strives not to fail, they often become extremely negative of themselves.

Perfectionism is often seen as a mental health disorder. It is a personality trait that one develops over time. However, the presence of perfectionism can come alongside other mental health disorders, explained Shuhaida Adam, a social worker at Islamic Careline. Oftentimes people confuse obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) with perfectionism.

“Perfectionism is a trait. OCD is a mental health disorder. OCD is not controllable. The person with OCD has intrusive thoughts and repetitive thoughts that they cannot control and impulses that they simply cannot control … Most of the researchers believe that perfectionism is learned behaviour. There may also be a bit of genetics around it where you may inherit certain traits towards drive, towards ambition.”

The cause for perfectionism

Perfectionists are fixated on being perfect and doing things perfectly. Research has shown that these standards can either be set by oneself or by one’s caretakers. It can also develop as a survival mechanism, Adam explained.

“It can develop over time through social interactions and also sometimes when there are certain cases of abuse. Children may take that onto themselves and many hold that the harmful actions are their own fault. They then want to change that by becoming the perfect child. By pleasing the person who’s committing harmful actions to them. They have a strong desire to please the parent, to be the perfect child. It’s basically a survival mechanism. If the parent cannot find any problem with the child, the child believes they will not experience any abuse.”

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How it impacts children

Perfectionism starts as early as childhood and can carry on into adulthood. A child can be seen as a perfectionist if they are pushed to excel in sports, academics and when parents want them to dress in a particular manner. Perfectionist children tend to suffer more from mental disorders, said Adam.

“Children tend to have low self-esteem. They tend to have a strong fear of failure. They tend to be quite rigid in their thinking. The approach to most things is black and white. It’s either or. There’s no in between. They have to get it perfectly right. It has to be a perfect match or have to get straight A’s or else they find that they may not even be able to do it.”

Children are young and the only way they learn is by failing. Most kids can brush off their failures and can quickly recover from it. Some aren’t even impacted by it. However, the same cannot be said for perfectionist children.

“If they do experience failure, it has a very strong impact on them, on their well-being. People who have extreme perfectionism have anxiety. They report having feelings of low self-worth, a lot of feelings of guilt. They may be suicidal, or they may completely withdraw from functioning in life. People who have a strong fear of failure may not attempt at all.”

Perfectionism in young people

As one grows older, they now have more choices to make in life. They have to pick what career they want to pursue, the type of activities they want to do and how to live their life. Young adults who have perfectionism often let society and their parents decide how to live their life, said Adam. They can also tend to become people pleasers.

“Young people may go and choose a career that their parents want them to do or it’s the in thing, it’s a very popular career at that point. They’re choosing it to live up to a certain standard set by either the caregiver or society but it’s not what they truly want to do. When they’re in it, they may then have burnout, they may become disillusioned, they may completely withdraw.”

When they first experience failure they may not have the necessary skills to bounce back. This can lead them to do something that might not even be seen as something good to them.

“Since they haven’t really dealt with failure, coped with failure, when they hit the first major stumbling block in life, they don’t have the skills to overcome it. They do not have the inner tenacity to pick themselves up and then perhaps look at alternatives. They may even do something that is not really seen as perhaps successful either by themselves or by the significant people around them.”

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Relationships with perfectionists can be tough

Being in a relationship comes with its own difficulties. Being in one with a perfectionist can be difficult. Not only will they set a high standard for themselves but also for their significant other. When these standards are not achieved both parties can feel as if they are worthless.

“If your partner has these traits, it can leave you having feelings of low self-worth or feeling not good enough or there can be a very strong disconnect with your partner. Your partner has these high standards that they expect you to live by and for you to meet their needs. If you cannot do that then you are regarded as lesser, or you are regarded as perhaps unworthy.”

Seeking help

Perfectionists don’t actively seek help. To seek help would admit that something is wrong, that they are not perfect. They believe they are in control of their habits. This is also a trait of a perfectionist, to always want to be in control. For those who do seek help, Adam uses talk therapy to try to help them.

“We do use certain types of counselling with people who want to lessen that. A lot of talk therapy to recognise what exactly is going on. What are the thoughts behind the need to succeed. The need to get things to be a certain way. The need for sticking to routine very rigidly.”

There are different methods that Adam uses depending on what a person is hyper fixated on. She also tries to lower the critical voice in their head.

Perfectionism is a trait that can cause major problems in one’s life if not managed properly. It can become a toxic trait very quickly and it can lead to one emotionally hurting the ones they love. Seeking help early on can lead one to avoid becoming toxic and harmful not just to oneself but to others around.


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