When the Desire to Do Your Best Becomes Problematic
There is an argument to be made that, in many ways, those of us lucky enough to live in privileged countries such as Australia, are doing so in a post-Feminism Golden Era. In this moment, women are powering through the glass ceiling of industry and government, can finally and freely call out harassment and discrimination, are closing in on pay equity (albeit glacially), and are finding their true place in the meritocracy.
For many young, Australian women, current conditions provide boundless opportunity; they are raised to Lean In, and to believe that they can do, be, and say anything. This notion that women deserve to have it all, has permeated norms and popular culture, is increasingly supported through policy and legislation, and with the added reach and potency of Social Media is gradually being internalised by younger generations. So while there is still work much to be done around authentic and lasting equality, the epic battles of previous generations of Feminist warriors have laid the groundwork for more a far more conducive culture.
Therein lie, however, some inadvertent and challenging consequences for young females. An example of a new and emerging trend, is a pervasive and worrying culture of perfectionism; a complex rubric of impossibly high self-standards and excessive self-criticism. This relationship is consistently shown to negatively impact on individual wellbeing, and is a particularly gendered phenomenon. Although young males are known to set high self-standards, crucially, they are typically socialised to be bold disruptors, and to perceive failure as a positive and artful lesson, rather than a reflection of their character and capabilities.
The inherent fear of failure at the heart of perfectionism drives young women to jettison bravery and focus on honing their measurable, hard skills, in order to be seen as intellectually and socially equal. This process deprives them of the opportunity to develop the critical soft skills of emotional agility, resilience and brash creativity that are essential to modern life and can lead to significant detriments in life satisfaction.
Self-awareness around the ratio of healthy vs problematic perfectionism, strategies around acknowledgement and reward, and constructive, positive self-talk must all form part the cultivation of healthy and productive ambition.
So what are the contours and costs of Perfectionism? And how can we learn to recognise and address it in our daughters, friends, colleagues and ourselves?
One of the challenges of dealing with Perfectionism, is that it can show up across multiple domains of a young woman’s life; from her academic, athletic and creative performance, to her body image, interpersonal relationships and of course, her self-perception and self-regard. Furthermore, perfectionism is essentially ambition gone awry, thus any approach to dealing with it must take into account that a healthy dose of self-analysis can promote change and growth, as it’s a natural part of human development. It’s when perfectionism turns problematic that we need to make some changes.
Some of the signs of problematic perfectionism to look for in yourself or others, include;
- Procrastination (driven by fear of failure or inability to meet one’s own high standards).
- Moving the goal posts (rather than acknowledging one’s achievements, you recalibrate expectations and push beyond initial goals).
- Negative self-talk (regardless of context).
- Locus of control (including a tendency to blame failure on oneself, and attribute success to external factors).
- Poor general wellbeing (stress, anxiety, illness etc. These can result from lack of balance when focussing all attention on specific goals).
- Relationship breakdowns or isolation (perfectionists can deprioritise interpersonal relationships in the pursuit of their goals).
So what then can we do about problematic perfectionism?
Educating young people to be process-oriented, reframe notions of success, tame their inner critic and self-regulate can all be helpful in tackling perfectionism. Crucial to tackling the problem however, is recognising that point where healthy ambition tips over into problematic perfectionism.
…am I truly finding meaning in my process, and do I psychologically reward my efforts?
…do I feel connected to people, and an optimism about where my life is going?
… is there a sense of obligation and negativity attached to simply living to achieve?
… does failure define you, or are you able to convert life’s inevitable stumbles into valuable learning experiences?
And, put simply…
…are you deriving any joy from your efforts, in all domains of your life?
Because this idea of perfectionism exists on a continuum, much like all our feelings about ourselves in general, the pathway to healthy perfectionism isn’t always linear. Just as we have our good and bad days with all our thoughts and behaviours, so too must we allow ourselves to experience the breadth of experience in our ambition.