How to Cope with Perfectionism in a Culture That Promotes It

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When you live in the heart of Silicon Valley, being a perfectionist is almost the norm. Those around you are working for the richest companies in America with the highest standards. They are working upwards of 14-17 hour days all the while making it seem like they have it all together. And while some people can get by just fine under this pressure, most are not. As a dietitian and health coach for a couple big tech companies, I have seen this first hand. Those who have just as high inner expectations as outer are crumbling due to their perfectionistic ways. As someone who is a recovering perfectionist, I make sure that I do all I can to not fall into this bucket while working in a space that can whole heartedly take advantage of it. I am lucky to say I don’t have huge demands, no large deadlines, but being a medical professional, I can be subject to burnout quick from seeing too many patients without breaks, taking on a lot of what my patients bring. In this post, I wanted to explore what I think should be talked about more when it comes to perfectionism.

So what makes being a perfectionist harmful?

Perfectionism is defined in psychology as “a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”

Just by reading the definition of perfectionism, you can see how it can be harmful to one’s mental health. As we all know, being perfect is impossible so you can see how perfectionists will truly never be happy because the expectations increase overtime to the point they risk their own health.

Unfortunately, studies show that one type of perfectionism that can be the worst and that is socially prescribed perfectionism where “individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to get their approval.” This is by far the type of perfectionism I see getting worse. With people using filters, perfect lighting and social media to make it seem like their life is perfect or when managers are becoming Gordon Ramsey in meetings demanding the best of their team, many people who already are viciously working toward perfection in their life are being bombarded with social pressures to be perfect in unrealistic ways. Anxiety, depression and suicide ideation are all the risks of this perfectionism. We can all sit around as medical professionals in the Bay Area scratching out heads as to why so many people are anxious, on meds or need therapy. I think we all know too well it is the social pressures and internal pressures to be perfect that is the root of this. (Most of the time.)

Perfectionists also have to live with a harsh inner voice which makes them at risk for multiple issues such as OCD, eating disorders and social anxiety as a way to avoid these feelings and use something else to control what is really the issue.

The other issue: perfectionism is very much welcomed by many. Who wouldn't want a co-worker or partner who gives their everything their all and MORE? The consequence is also most likely hidden since a true perfectionist would not dare complain.

Good news, there is hope.

you may resonate well with what I am saying. So what can you do to help?

Practice self-compassion which is the practice of self-kindness.

  • Mindfulness can help with self compassion so meditation geared toward loving one self or being good with the moment is helpful.

  • Write a note to yourself each morning. Write one compliment to yourself, put it on your mirror, in your journal or just say it to yourself walking to work.

  • Give back to yourself in a way that is not self loathing. Exercise to feel good not to change your body. Nourish yourself to have energy versus decrease body fat percentage. Take time out to just be bored rather than using all your free time to get something done. (A hard one if I do say so myself.)

Recognize what is healthy expectations to shoot for when it comes to work and life (even if it can go against what is currently the case).

  • Set up your weekly planner with commitments and a workload that challenges you but also allows for some space to recharge.

  • Be vocal about your expectations to your boss, co-workers, family and friends.

  • Try not to over-analyze the problem. Stay calm and take each task as it develops.

  • Recognize your successes frequently and use them as a way to goal set further. (Challenges people to look past their criticism and go to recognizing what they are doing well.)

  • Be a good influence to those around you. Culture can only change from those in it having a positive influence.

  • Take a step back and think about how you can change your negative thoughts into the positive.

Self-care that goes beyond exercise.

Since perfectionists are prone to mental health issues and it has also been seen to increase risk of chronic disease (high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease), it is important to recognize the power of taking GOOD breaks. While I fully believe exercise is a great treatment for depression, exercise is still a stressor on the body and a way to change the body. It is good to think about ways to practice self-care that allows for mental and physical breaks. This can be:

  • Self soothing activities such as pedicures, mani, massage.

  • Reading

  • Zoning out in front of the couch aka Netflix and chill

  • Meditation

  • Sleeping in

  • Restorative yoga

  • Hanging out with friends

  • Enjoying your favorite meal (sans feelings around health)

Lean in to your support system.

  • Studies show that those who have a good support system are more likely to thrive and prevent mental distress.

  • Have someone to confide in when feeling overwhelmed.

  • Practice asking for help when you need it.

  • Take time for those important in your life even if it means sacrificing time from work.

Like I say to many of my perfectionist friends, your strength is also your flaw. The best way to be in harmony to check in and see what you need. What are you doing to prevent it getting out of hand? Are you vocalizing your needs and feelings? Some food for thought for those who are trying to get by in this crazy world.