The modern problem with pursuing perfection

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Story highlights

  • Perfectionism has increased over the past 2½ decades, according to a new study
  • Striving for unattainable perfection could have a negative impact on mental health

(CNN)"Perfection, by definition, is an impossible goal, and that's the first thing to say."

So says a man who would know: Thomas Curran, a social psychologist whose area of expertise is perfectionism. He's been studying the idiosyncratic personality trait for years.
Curran is the lead author of a study, published last month in the journal Psychological Bulletin, that found "the drive to be perfect in body, mind and career" has risen over the past few decades. He says it's not just the result of parents pushing their children harder than ever before but rather a larger shift in ideology at a societal level.
    The caveat: The pursuit of perfection doesn't always propel a person to greatness, according to this new research. It can instead have a detrimental effect on someone's mental health.
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    "Perfectionism," the study says, "is broadly defined as a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations."
    As Curran argues, no matter how hard one tries, perfection is simply unattainable -- especially over the long run.
    "The main perception of perfectionism is that these guys are ... highly diligent and they're high achievers," said Curran, an assistant professor in the University of Bath Department for Health in the UK. "That's true to a certain extent, but you can also have all those qualities and be conscientious and be diligent."

    The rise of perfectionism

    Curran, along with co-author Andrew P. Hill of York St John University, looked at data from more than 40,000 American, Canadian and British college students who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. In the simplest terms, it's a clinical test that determines to what precise degree someone strives for perfection.
    The study measured three types of perfectionism:
    • Self-oriented: "When directed toward the self, individuals attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluations."
    • Socially prescribed: "When perceived to come from others, individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval."
    • Other-oriented: "When perfectionistic expectations are directed toward others, individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate others critically."
    The researchers found that, from 1989 to 2016, the scores of all three types of perfectionism rose significantly. The greatest increase was seen in socially prescribed perfectionism, which went up 33%. This was in large part due to people becoming "more individualistic, materialistic and socially antagonistic," according to the report.
    More and more, we are setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves, whether with school grades, salary goals or lifestyle ambitions.
    "You tend to find that metrics are very important, because in order for us to compete, we need to know where we stand, and to know where we stand, we need to know our attributes," Curran said. "That tends to breed a lot of social anxiety, upward social comparison, and we, as a consequence, worry about how we look to other people."

    The perfect life -- on social media

    To that end, we are spending what scientists believe is an unhealthy amount of time on apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
    "The popularity of these platforms is, in part, explained by how they allow users to curate a perfect public image," according to the report.
    In fact, studies have shown that heavy use of social media can have a negative impact on mental health, largely due to the widespread portrayal of unrealistic body images.
    "Perfectionists have a lot of baggage that other people don't ... and that baggage comes from constantly striving to appear perfect," Curran said. "For a perfectionist, failure is catastrophic. It's catastrophic for their sense of self, and it's catastrophic for their emotional well-being."
    Specifically, the new study concludes that perfectionists may be at greater risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, because they will never be able to achieve what it is they're after: perfection. It simply does not exist.
    So, with society under this profound pressure, is there any going back?
    "Well, it's difficult," Curran said. "You cannot change culture overnight."
    But "there is a kind of counterculture occurring across the West," he said. "Young people are beginning to recognize that, potentially, this structure is not necessarily serving their needs."
    Curran's advice: don't be afraid to fail. And, when -- not if -- you do, don't think of failure as catastrophic.
    Just doing your best is not only good enough, it's even better than perfect.