'Perfectionism affects every aspect of my life in some way or another. I have to be perfect in every way, shape or form,' says 23-year-old Sam*. 'I set very high standards for myself, and if I don't reach them – which 99 percent of the time I don't because they're impossible – I then attack and belittle myself over it.'
Sound familiar? Perfectionism can affect anyone, but it's particularly associated with young, high-achieving women – whether it's a constant need to look flawless, or staying hours late at the office to tinker with that one piece of work that's not quite spot-on.
We might think of it as a fairly harmless personality quirk – just 'being a bit anal' – but perfectionism can actually have a pretty sinister impact on your long-term mental health. The Journal of Personality recently published the most comprehensive study of its kind into perfectionism as a risk factor for suicide, concluding that 'self-generated and socially based pressures to be perfect' make people more susceptible to suicidal thoughts.
Suicide is the most severe example, but perfectionism has also been linked to a whole host of mental health problems. 'Perfectionism and eating disorders tend to go hand in hand, as well as conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety,' explains Dr Nihara Krause, a Chartered Clinical Psychologist who specialises in clinical perfectionism.
'It's hard to know whether the perfectionism comes first, or if it comes as a consequence of feeling that you can't achieve what you want to achieve. Sometimes, in people who are very depressed, it's because they can't achieve their perfectionist standards,' she says. 'Chronic fatigue can be very common too, because perfectionists get exhausted and burned out, but struggle to take a break to recover.'
While certain personality types are more vulnerable to perfectionism, Dr Krause says your environment can also play a big role. 'If you tend to be quite obsessive and have very demanding standards, you might naturally incline more towards perfectionism. Some people also learn that you need to be perfect in order to get ahead, perhaps because of pressure from high-achieving families, schools and jobs,' she explains.
'If you have high levels of stress or low levels of self-esteem, perfectionism can also be a way of feeling better about yourself. You feel that, if you achieve something to a perfect level, it'll compensate for what you see as an imperfection in yourself,' she adds.
29-year-old Lizzie suffers from PTSD, depression and anxiety, and says her perfectionism is relentless. 'I have to have absolutely everything in my life at a top level, and I put so much pressure on myself that I struggle to take any downtime,' she says.
'I feel like society tells me I need to have everything – it's not enough for me to be doing well at work, and as a student, I still get asked when I'm going to settle down and have a nice boyfriend! It gets to the point when my body gives up on me and I'm completely exhausted, both mentally and physically,' Lizzie adds.
Similarly, Sam believes perfectionism is a contributing factor in her borderline personality disorder (BPD). 'It's probably the root cause of all my self-esteem issues,' she says. 'I hate myself and, when I don't reach the standards I set, or I make a mistake, all it does is feed into the hatred. I feel like I've lost a sense of who I am, and instead only have a sense of who I should be.'
On a practical level, this makes work, uni, and even socialising a real struggle. 'If I don't get a first, I feel as if I've failed. Even if I do get a first, I don't feel it's good enough unless I got 100 percent. I have to start my work months before the deadline because I'll go over and over it, changing it ten times before I'm even happy to call it a first draft,' Sam says.
'I have this unconscious idea of how I should be, talk, act, socialise, and dress constantly. When any of that is slightly out of place, I won't stop thinking about it, wishing I could go back and change it,' she adds.
These are all classic signs: 'People with perfectionism are extremely conscientious; they pay huge attention to detail; they set unrealistic goals; they are very, very precise; they find it difficult to accept criticism or delegate, and they'll often procrastinate a lot, and find it difficult to finish tasks because they feel it's never good enough,' Dr Krause says.
But is there actually anything we can do about perfectionism, or is it simply part of who we are? To some extent, perfectionism may just be part of how we're wired. When that personality trait becomes more severe, to the point where it's negatively impacting on your life, it's known as 'clinical perfectionism', and it's typically treated using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
'Clinical perfectionism is depending too much on an evaluation that is either self-imposed or that you think is imposed by other people,' explains Dr Krause. 'It makes you constantly pursue excessively high standards, regardless of whether the consequences are negative. You basically become caught in a loop of being unable to meet up to the demands you're placing upon yourself.'
Perfectionism can be a great motivator, offering positive payoffs and self-esteem boosts – at least in the short-term – but it comes with a dark side. After a long stay in hospital for mental ill health, Lizzie's high standards inspired her to go back to uni. 'Finding something I'm passionate about really helped me get back to work. But if I'm not the best, it's still easy for me to go on a downward spiral of believing I'm not good enough,' she says.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to lessen its grip on your mental health – but you'll have to want to let go of your need for perfection. 'Instead of having such rigid standards, try to commit yourself to a more flexible range of options. If you believe getting less than 100 percent is a failure, try telling yourself that anything between 75 and 100 percent is good enough,' Dr Krause suggests.
You can practise being okay with imperfection by deliberately putting yourself outside your comfort zone, and trying things you know you're not going to be good at – whether it's a new hobby or a silly challenge for charity. 'Allow yourself to make mistakes, and think of yourself not just based on your performance, but as a person overall,' Dr Krause says.
Managing perfectionism is very much a learning curve, so take it steady and don't beat yourself up if you don't see results overnight. 'I'm still struggling with it, but I'm beginning to learn how to look at the situation rationally, from someone else's perspective,' says Sam. 'It doesn't take away all the effects, but it at least makes me really think about whether I deserve to punish myself so much.'
*Name has been changed
For support with any of the issues mentioned, contact Mind or call The Samaritans on 116 123
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.