Is Perfectionism Bad for Your Brain?
We live in day and age where perfectionism is considered a virtue. In every sphere of our lives, we are told that there is a perfect state of matter and we need to try to upgrade to it. There’s the perfect body shape, the perfect job, the perfect wedding, the perfect salary figure, the perfect score and so on.
That surely means those people who constantly thrive to get everything right and perfect and try harder and harder are actually on the correct track, right?
Perfectionism may be praised by all and sundry, but your brain will be much better off without it. In fact, more and more studies in the relevant fields are coming to the conclusion that this ‘virtue’ is directly related to the rise of mental health issues and suicidal tendencies across the globe.
Perfection is a myth
Here’s the thing about perfection – it does not exist. Our brain does not recognize perfection because it is entirely built on social expectations; nothing in the world is inherently ‘perfect’.
Hence, perfectionism is basically holding oneself to unrealistic standards, a heightened form of self-criticism. It has more to do with how you view yourself than with the actual demands of your goal. When they encounter setbacks, perfectionists do not think “I need to go about this in a different way”. They think “I’m stupid and that’s why I failed.”
As a result, most perfectionists end up never achieving their specific goals, because in the process they actually harm the one thing that will help them achieve it – their brain.
Perfectionism is self-defeating
Every human is born with their unique capacity. When you push your brain past its capacity to attain an unrealistic goal, it does not perform better; instead, it goes into survival mode. Here, our brain’s instinctive response can be of three types – fight, flight, or freeze.
The fight response is when you keep on working harder. This will inevitably lead to burn out as your brain is already super-exhausted. For example, if you are worried that you’ll fail a test and stay up the night studying, you’ll either fall asleep during the test or be so exhausted that you won’t be able to perform well.
Freeze is when you are completely overpowered by the situation and your brain stops working altogether. Needless to say, you are no closer to achieving your goal by this either.
Flight is the most common response. Perfectionists tend to put off doing something from the fear of failure or not being able to do it ‘perfectly’. They will prepare for weeks and months, waste time on ‘research’, do everything but actually starting the work. That might look like laziness from the outside, but it is the perfectionist’s brain’s way of protecting itself from more stress.
All in all, you end up believing you are not good enough to achieve this goal.
Perfectionism makes you ill
There is a multitude of serious diseases that has been directly linked to perfectionist tendencies, almost all of them related to brain dysfunction. Most common illnesses are –
- Depression and Anxiety
- Social Anxiety Disorders
- Overeating, Anorexia, Bulimia and other eating disorders
- Chronic headaches and Migraine
- Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
- Self-harm and suicide
How to break out of it
But some kind of personal standards are also useful, otherwise complacency may set in and we may never grow in life. So, how to create that balance? Several psychologists have advised that conscientiousness is a better approach than perfectionism. But like any habit, this too is hard to change, and you have to work consciously.
- Be mindful and realistic about your capacity. Instead of setting your goal according to society’s or other people’s expectations, try to do something within your range.
- Don’t tell yourself “I have to be perfect”. Tell yourself “I need to give my best.”
- When you want to build capacity, be incremental about it. Give yourself shorter goals, so your brain gets adapted in the process.
- Separate your self-worth from the goal. You do not become stupid just because you scored a little less than the perfect mark.
- Start an activity or creative hobby you have never done before in your leisure time just for the fun of it, with absolutely no milestone. Your brain will learn to enjoy the process instead of focusing on a goal.
Perfectionism can hard to shed, especially since our culture puts such a positive value on it. But keeping your brain healthy is worth more than any pursuit of perfection. Remember that the next time you start working on something.