Striving to be perfect may have mental health costs

The quest to be perfect is blighting the lives of many Australians, as they struggle to meet unrealistic expectations they place on themselves, according to a leading Australian expert, presenting at the Australian Psychological Society College of Clinical Psychology conference in Coolum this week.  

Professor Tracey Wade of the School of Psychology at Flinders University, in South Australia, says that too often some people feel that they are worthless if they fall short of their goals, or make mistakes in attempting to achieve them.

This ‘unhealthy perfectionism’ – high standards combined with brutal self criticism – has a significant cost: Professor Wade says it is often identified in the sufferers of common but debilitating disorders such as depression, anxiety and even eating disorders.

Professor Wade said: “There is nothing wrong with perfectionism, which is striving for high standards, but when people get caught in a cycle of self-blame and criticism when those ambitions are not met, and really feel that they are worthless because they have failed, it can be extremely damaging. It can also prevent them seeing that mistakes present an opportunity to learn, which is hugely valuable in itself.”

She continued: “A pattern of unhealthy perfectionism can turn people into procrastinators or avoiders, and it can also rob them of enjoyment when they do meet their goals, because they assume they must have set the bar too low.”

Professor Wade and colleagues at the School of Psychology at Flinders University have recruited 1,000 participants for a study of perfectionism, examining whether treating unhealthy, or ‘clinical’ perfectionism, can reduce the prevalence of anxiety, depression and other issues.

Professor Wade said: “We have noticed that when we help people to overcome unhealthy perfectionism, it often helps to alleviate other disorders, such as anxiety and depression. It may be that helping to break the unhealthy perfectionism habit is a helpful catch-all treatment.”

Professor Wade, a co-author of the book Overcoming Perfectionism (Robinson Publishing), is presenting on the topic at the Australian Psychological Society College of Clinical Psychologists Conference in Coolum, July 15-17.

She says:  “The key to overcoming negative perfectionism is to focus on your whole life, seeing any failures in context, and to avoid the temptation to define yourself by a list of achievements. Self-compassion and kindness is also important, because criticism and abuse is not the way to get the best out of anyone, including yourself.”

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Media contacts: A number of clinical psychologists are available for interview before and during the conference. To discuss interview and story opportunities, please contact the media team below:

Karen Coghlan (+61 3 8662 6638) and Judith Heywood (+ 61 3 8662 3301)
Media number:  +61 (0)435 896 444
Media email: media@psychology.org.au