Research Stigma Reduction Therapies — 01 September 2017

Do you strive to be perfect in everything you do? And does it get you down if you don’t or can’t achieve your goals? You’re not alone.

Perfectionism is being seen by psychologists as a driving force for other disorders such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders such as anorexia.

While it’s not considered a behavioural disorder on its own, some academics believe about 30 per cent of the Australian population have ‘clinical perfectionism’ – relentlessly striving for high achievements and unfairly judging yourself when those goals can’t be met.

Talya Rabinovitz is a clinical psychologist in Sydney who sees many clients who have an obsession with being perfect and not knowing how to set achievable standards.

“It’s really important that we differentiate against a desire to excel and perfectionism,” she told Hack.

“So for example, because it’s HSC time coming up, you might have a desire to excel and get great marks so that you can go to university.

“Perfectionism would be obsessing over every assessment in the HSC, beating yourself up if you don’t get over 90 and feeling totally worthless if you don’t get into medicine.

“And so we really see that harsh self-critic coming in there and probably lowering the person’s sense of worth.”

Erin Guy

Erin Guy at Sydney Olympic Park for training,  Sarah Whyte

‘I couldn’t control the tears’

Erin Guy is a triple jumper hoping to get to the Commonwealth Games next year. When she was 15, she noticed her obsession with being perfect and how it was affecting her on and off the running track.

It was during a low-level competition that her perfectionism took over, ruining her performance.

“I wasn’t competing well. I had failed two out of three jumps and I remembered my coach was starting to talk to me, and I couldn’t communicate.

“I just couldn’t control the tears and it was embarrassing,” she says.

“That was a really significant moment for me… that I couldn’t control my anxiety in regards to the sport.”

Erin has now sought mindfulness techniques and yoga to help her keep calm when she feels anxious about being perfect in her sport.

“No one is perfect and that’s just a ridiculous thing to think about all the time but it’s something I’m trying to work on.”

Erin Guy stretching at Sydney Olympic Park in Homebush

Erin Guy stretching at Sydney Olympic Park in Homebush. triple j Hack: Sarah Whyte.  

Depression, anxiety and eating disorders

Joel Howell is a Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University. He says when perfectionists experience failure this is met with intense self-criticism.

But he says when perfectionists then achieve success they will often not celebrate it, rather focus on a higher benchmark and achieving that.

“When people focus on achieving to a extremely high standard, and they pursue these standards regardless of what it might cost them – even if those costs might not seem obvious at the time,” he says.

The same thing can happen for athletes.

“Athletes often have very high standards for their own performance so in regards to perfectionism, athletes are often seen as setting standards that they feel they are required to meet.”

His latest paper focused on the impact perfectionism has on a range of disorders including anxiety and eating disorders.

“It can actually start to underline many different disorders, for instance if you are reaching for really high standards, but then can’t see any way of achieving it, it’s shown to underlie experiences of depression.

“Likewise, if you have high standards but then you’re are really worried if you don’t reach them – that can underlie anxiety.

“It also applies to eating disorders where people have extremely high standards about their body shape and their weight.”

‘I became anorexic’

Tim Conway was ten when he was told he had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but it was also when he noticed his obsession with wanting everything to be perfect.

“I used to wash my hands so much that they would be red, red, raw I would wash the skin off my hands,” he says. “When I was writing my notes for university I would write them over again.”

“You just feel so hopeless in that moment that you couldn’t be perfect.”

Last year, when Tim was in London he wanted to lose weight, but, like many things in his life, Tim took to obsessing over how to do it perfectly.

“I was about 115kg and my friends would tease me and call me a ‘fat f**k’ and I got really obsessive about my calories, being fat, and being unloved because I was fat.

“I wanted to be as thin as I possibly could and that in turn got me down to 50kg. I was so fixated on being skinny … or ‘perfect’ is the word.”

Tim is slowly putting weight back on now, but says it’s been a long journey.

“Now I’ve had to learn there’s no such thing as perfect. You can’t be perfect in every aspect of your life.”

What to do you if you’re a perfectionist

Clinical psychologist Talya Rabinovitz says the first step is to start talking about your perfectionism, but then find areas in your life where you don’t need to strive.

“I would say consider the other non-achievement-related things that make you, you,” she says.

“So maybe it’s your sense of humour, or your kindness or your cooking skills – things that have nothing to do with being flawless or achieving.”

“Share how you’re feeling with your friends, ask them if they are going through the same thing and then realising that maybe it’s something they are struggling with and that you’re not alone.”

This piece by Sarah Whyte was first seen on ‘ABC TriplejHack’ August 25 2017.




About Author

MHAA Staff

(0) Readers Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *