Performing. Pleasing. Proving.

By Nicki Leaper 2021-10-21 11:55:04

The pressure of perfection and the truth of what it’s costing all of us.

Simone Biles, the US gymnast, is known as a GOAT - Greatest Of All Time. She arrived at the Tokyo Olympics with the world expecting her to ‘prove’ that to them, again. And yet that pressure of perfection is what caused her to pull out of the team and individual all-round competitions, citing the need to focus on her mental health.

The day before her official withdrawal, she posted on Instagram “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times...!” She then subsequently admitted, “It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been...taken away from me to please other people.”

Under the world’s spotlight, she made the brave decision to “walk out of [the arena], not be dragged out of here on a stretcher.”

She is not the only young athlete raising this issue. Across the worlds of tennis (with Naomi Osaka), cricket (Ben Stokes) and football (Tyrone Mings), the link between expected ‘perfection’ and deteriorating mental health has been acknowledged. And by being open about what their perfectionism is costing them, they open up a path for us to take a look at our own behaviour and consider whether ‘being perfect’ should really ever be the goal.

Perfectionism means having unrealistic expectations and thinking and feeling negatively when those expectations aren’t met”

— Professor A Hill, York St. John University, UK

“Perfectionism is the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.”

— American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology

"And perfectionism can show up in multiple ways."

— P Hewitt, G Flett, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology



Perfect and Perfectionism

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, perfect means: complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type or without fault.

Sounds good. It makes me think of the perfect summer’s day. Or the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Awesome.

But perfectionism. That’s something different. And whichever definition I look at, it doesn’t feel so great.

There’s self-oriented perfectionism, when you expect yourself to be perfect, which causes unnecessary anxiety and worry. There’s other-oriented perfectionism, where you expect other people to be perfect, which impacts negatively on your relationships. (Who wants to be around someone who constantly makes you feel like a failure?) And there’s socially prescribed perfectionism, thinking that other people (a parent, a friend, a boss) expect you to be perfect. This can feel like the worst kind of perfectionism as you believe that others only like you if you perform, look or behave the way they want.

So, if this is what ‘perfectionism’ is, the next thing to dig into is what perfectionism does.


You. Me. Anyone.

The first thing worth noting is that perfectionism can, and does, affect anyone, especially high achievers. Young or old. Male, female and very often anyone struggling with the in-between spaces that exist. 

The pressure to be, or appear to be, perfect starts early and once it gets its hooks into you, it’s hard to extract yourself. We unsuspectingly learn it in our homes and we carry it forwards with us into our futures.

Think about the ‘Ideal Student’. Hardworking, excelling academically at sports, at music, at everything. They gain the praise and attention of teachers and ensure parents and grandparents are proud. And then it needs to be continued, through middle school and high school, where expectations only grow. The perfect IB score to get into the best university to land a prestigious job in the ‘right’ company. (But do we talk enough about the loss of fun, the anxiety attacks, the lack of sleep or exercise, the eating disorders, the self-harm?)

And what about the ‘Perfect Family’?

An attractive husband and a dazzling wife, with smiling children, beautifully dressed and well mannered, who holiday in all the ‘now’ places and have Insta family moments every weekend. (But what about the late nights, the workaholism, alcoholism, the spending habits and mounting debt, the lack of time for real human connection, the affairs… and the mental pressure of hiding all of this from view?)


The Trouble with Perfect

The worst thing is that perfectionism is often called out in society as a virtue but it is actually a limiting and destructive pattern of behaviour.

If we break it down to its basics, perfectionism is really just a plain old fear of failure. 

It’s the voice inside your head that tells you that you’ll never be loved unless you are perfect. Have you ever thought to question that voice, to determine whether it’s telling the truth? No. You just accept it at face value and move forwards, hating yourself for your inadequacies, carrying the weight of perfectionism on your shoulders. It’s exhausting.

Perfectionism builds walls around you and stops you from making a real connection with those around you. You won’t allow anyone to see the ‘real’ you because the ‘real you’ isn’t good enough. It’s about trying to have a feeling of control and power rather than risk asking for help. Trying to build a feeling of acceptance and influence rather than risk not fitting in.

It also leads to procrastination. You won’t risk putting anything ‘out there’ until it is guaranteed to be 100% perfect. So you delay and postpone and never actually get what you want done, for fear that it’s not good enough.

It limits your growth as perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. If the goal is perfection, then there is no incentive to take chances and push the boundaries. Do what you know and stick to the expected results. No risk. All very practical and performative, but where’s the growth (or fun) in that?

If you do something ‘perfectly’ once, then where do you go from there? There’s a feeling that downwards is the only way, which is hardly motivational.

The Harvard Business Review has researched and reported that perfectionism is a much bigger weakness than you might imagine in business. It is consistently related to numerous detrimental work and non-work outcomes including higher levels of burnout, stress, workaholism, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.” 

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

One Alaskan medical study found that over half of people who died by suicide were described by their loved ones as “perfectionists.” Another study from the US National Institute of Health found that more than 70 % of young people who died by suicide were in the habit of creating “exceedingly high” expectations of themselves. With the pressures of social media and constant connectivity, this toxic perfectionism seems to be hitting young people particularly hard.

And the impact of perfectionism does not stop at mental health. Some studies have found that high blood pressure is more prevalent among perfectionistic people, and other researchers have even linked the trait with cardiovascular disease.

So, how do we change the story?

Permission to Fail

Failure is often something that’s frowned upon. And we’re often hardest on ourselves, beating ourselves up for the smallest slip. 

When we’re afraid of failure, we become rigid and inflexible. Our thinking becomes black and white: this is right and that is wrong. We avoid interesting and exciting challenges because anything that has an uncertain outcome is a no-go zone. Fear of failure also limits our creativity, as we won’t risk putting anything out there that might invite criticism. We don’t share our thoughts and talents, we keep ourselves small. And we procrastinate, putting off taking the first step on things we really care about for fear of making a misstep.

But what if we accepted that a ‘FAIL’ was actually a First Attempt In Learning? Not a bad thing at all. In fact, a step in the right direction. 

Professor Carol Dweck’s research into ‘growth mindset’ fundamentally changed educational philosophy. A fixed mindset has us believing that we’re either good at something or we’re not, and if we’re not, then we shouldn’t even bother trying. 

When we adopt a growth mindset we realise that failure is an opportunity to grow. With a growth mindset, our self-esteem is built on the belief that our abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. It’s about learning to fail well. Taking each failure as an opportunity to reflect and learn. Knowing that learning from failure is what leads to eventual success.

"Perfect is not only the enemy ofthe good, it is also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun!”

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear


Striving to Be Your Best

Shirzad Chamine, author of Positive Intelligence, details how perfectionism is a strength (high standards, self-disciplined, a desire for order). It’s just a strength that you’ve pushed too far, to the point that it now actually damages your mental fitness and health. 

So what’s the shift that needs to be made? What’s the difference between striving to be your best and wanting to be perfect?

The simplest explanation I have come across is: Perfectionism is about the fear of failure, while striving to be your best is about the urge for success.

Perfectionism is ‘other focussed. “What will ‘they’ think?” It’s about avoiding the pain of judgement and blame. It’s about trying to earn approval and acceptance and trying to manage other people’s perceptions is both impossible and exhausting.

Striving to be your best is ‘self’ focused. It’s about healthy achievement and growth. “What can I learn? How can I improve?” Striving to be your best requires courage, connection, creativity and hard work, to extend yourself to reach your full potential. It allows you to celebrate the small wins along the way and to treat yourself with compassion, whether the goal is met or not. As Brené Brown says, “It’s giving yourself credit for getting out there and trying at all”.

Antidotes to Perfectionism

So, how does perfectionism show up in your life? And those around you? Could there be room to ‘try something new’ to see how it might help lessen the pressure and increase the fun? Here are a few options to consider, to support you and those you love.

If you’re the perfectionist:

• Start. Get going with whatever it is you want to do, because done is better than perfect. Stop over-thinking it and get out of your head and into your body. Take one action step. Then the next. Get ‘the thing’ out there and ask for feedback as to how you can make it even better.

• Try time-boxing. Set specific limits for individual tasks to keep you moving. Schedule the blocks in your diary. 25 min chunks are suggested by the highly-rated Pomodoro Technique. This can help to keep you moving, and stop you from getting stuck on endless ‘perfecting’. Once the time is up, get up, move away and get on with something else.

• Focus on the process, not the outcome. Instead of aiming for perfection, how about searching for small moments of joy in the journey? The mastery of a new skill; the realisation that you can do something you thought you couldn’t; the connection you feel when you tell a friend about how things really are.

• Ask for help. Whether the problem is big or small, the likelihood is that you’re getting stuck because perfectionists hold the story that they must deal with things on their own. Human connection makes everything better and stronger and if nothing else, another perspective on an issue often helps stop the black and white thinking that can exist in a perfectionist mind.

• Good enough. Follow Pareto’s Law and think about the fact that for 80% of what you do, good enough really is just that - good enough. Most of the time, small mistakes are of absolutely no consequence. Save your striving for the 20% where it really matters - and preserve your time, energy and mental health.

• Let it go. Choose one aspect of your life where you’re willing to experiment with letting go of the need to be seen as perfect. Start with something small and challenge yourself to do or be less than perfect in that space for one week. See what happens. See what you, or anyone else around you, notices and comments on. Review the experiment. Amend or expand and try again.

• Reflect. Think about whether you could have done anything better. If you could, make a note of what and learn from it. If you couldn’t, make the conscious choice to accept it and move on.

• Kintsugi. Read up on the Japanese philosophies of wabi-sabi (embracing the flawed or imperfect) and kintsugi (golden joinery.) The belief is that where there are imperfections, you mend these ‘cracks’ not by trying to hide them, but by repairing them with powdered gold. The cracks make the item even more beautiful.

• Cut yourself some slack. No one is perfect. Mistakes happen and you can learn from them. 

• Practice self-compassion. Read Kristen Neff’s book. It’s a step by step practice that consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between perfection and depression, for both adolescents and adults. It’s about helping you to actually see the harsh self-beliefs and gently change them over time.

• Talk to someone. Speak to someone you trust (a friend, a teacher, a wellbeing officer) about how you feel perfectionism is affecting you. Trust that those around you care about you. Name the issue and they’ll be able to help you find the right resources to support your recovery to a more balanced and productive mindset. Nothing is more important than your mental and physical health and wellbeing.



If you are aware of perfectionists around you:

• Manage expectations. If you’re a manager, teacher, coach or parent of a perfectionist, you can do your bit to help too. Clearly explain the expectations of a task and communicate REAL tolerance for mistakes. Actively embrace the Growth Mindset, and make sure that there is no gap between your words (of accepting mistakes) and your reactions (when mistakes are made.) What you do carries much more weight than what you say.

• Focus on recovery. Help perfectionists set goals for rejuvenating non-work focused ‘recovery’ activities (like seeing friends or going for a walk outside) to mitigate stress and burnout.

• Talk to them. Name what you see happening. Name the impact you are noticing (on them, on you, on others). Listen to them. Let them know they are not alone

• Talk to someone else. Speak to a trained therapist and ask for help, so you can better support the person you care about. They might be in so deep that they can’t see the problem. If you can, you can help them get the support they need.

At the end of the day, there is nothing but truth in the old adage that ‘no one is perfect’. Nor should we want to be. Our imperfections are what make us human. Better to be healthy, well-rounded and on the lookout for how to improve, one small step at a time.



Student, 20

Choosing for myself

I’m almost 21. I’ve spent the past two years pursuing this professional qualification, straight from school and I’m depressed, feeling stupid, and worthless. I used to be a fairly smart student though. Time wasted. What do I do?

Doing this course was never my dream. I wanted to be a filmmaker, but that wasn’t seen as a sensible career move by my family. So after two years of studying, I felt exhausted and struggled with depression and anxiety. I lost confidence in my ability to create a future I wanted and I hit rock bottom. 

It was only then that I reached out for help. Knowing I could not go on as I was. I finally decided to quit my course and pursue my career as a videographer. It was hard explaining this decision to my family, but in the end, and with the help of my counsellor, I got them to understand how I was feeling and what was really important to me. Part of my recovery was letting things go, and starting to take charge of my life and think about what was right for me. For so long, I had fitted into everyone else’s idea of who I should be, and I was so afraid of breaking that image, but it was making me miserable.

My advice to other young people would be to find a hobby or passion that brings you joy and don’t compare yourself to others. Sometimes it’s our biggest failures that teach us the most valuable lessons and letting things fall apart isn’t the end of the world, it’s a chance to rebuild it.

Mid-Career Professional, 46

Men’s roles are changing, but the idea of the male provider persists

The burden to be a provider can be particularly intense for middle-aged men, who are often sandwiched between children who still need financial assistance and ageing parents who are starting to require help as well.

I have a family of six who depend on me, including my parents, children and wife. I feel like I am under constant pressure to provide the ‘appropriate’ lifestyle for all of them. Schooling, after school clubs, holidays... The responsibilities and financial burden just keep on increasing. But my salary does not. 

Working long hours and not getting enough rest is affecting my physical and mental health. I feel exhausted from what I have been doing for a long time. I need a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. A man is not an ATM machine to be used like this.

Yoga Teacher, Female, 38

My early 20s were a bit of a whirl. Work, socialising, marriage. 

I got pregnant with my eldest at 28, which was wonderful. We set up home and I quit my job to become a full-time mother. My husband had a well-paid job and when we were offered the chance to relocate to Shanghai, it felt like too good an opportunity to pass up. We moved out here, and it wasn’t long before my second son came along. Then, when he was five months old, I got pregnant with my third boy.

From the outside, my life looked great (beautiful house, ayi for help etc.), but inside I was struggling. I felt a lot of pressure to be a perfect mum and this got worse when the boys started school. I couldn’t help but compare myself to other mothers, and to think their children were far more polite and well-behaved. My husband was working long hours and without my old friends and family around me, I felt lost and had no confidence in my own abilities.

Depression and anxiety came on thick and fast. I was prescribed antidepressants, but I soon realised they were not for me. I stopped the medication and sought other means of help, eventually finding mindfulness and yoga.

My life has taken a different turn since then and I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to retrain whilst out here. I now work as a yoga teacher and I love it! I have a sense of purpose and a community connection that doesn’t revolve around me being the perfect mum. It hasn’t been easy on my marriage, but with the help of a great therapist and a lot of talking, we’re in a better place. 

Talking openly about my journey has also been hugely positive. It’s allowed me to really connect with people, building trust and confidence in the fact that we’re all going through some version of the same chaos and anyone who says otherwise is probably stuck in the perfection trap. 




Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Kristen Neff, Self Compassion