Maybe we can’t fix perfectionism ourselves.
It was the drumbeat of my life, growing up: When I overdid my homework and rewrote notes until my penmanship was perfect, when I practiced pirouettes in the ballet studio until my calves started giving out, when I people-pleased to the point where it was harmful, came the refrain — “you’ll grow out of it.”
From being a people-pleasing kid, to a young adult anxious about failing, to a woman who didn’t comprehend she was allowed to say no, even if it upset someone else, people always told me I’d grow out of the perfectionism that got treated as a virtue even as it privately undid me. I did not grow out of perfectionism; it grew with me. I’m not a perfectionist in the tidy way we’re taught to use it in job interviews when we’re asked for a weakness and really want to share a strength. I have existed, at times, in the dark underbelly of perfectionism — the sort that’s jealous and shame-filled, all at once, the kind that isn’t polished and pristine, but proud and paranoid, betraying the worst of you. I did not know or understand that I could be imperfect and still worthwhile, that the things I failed at, big and small, weren’t the heft of my personhood; I didn’t know I could not orient my life around pleasing people, being what they needed, and the world wouldn’t collapse when I reached out to take my life back. Back then, I didn’t yearn to be perfect; I craved being good enough.
It’s one reason why I cringe when I hear someone tell a young person they’ll grow out of perfectionism, that with growing up automatically comes caring less. In reality, I wondered how much perfectionism — and the rise in it — was a response to circumstances that seem to demand more of us than ever before: Social media and social comparison is often cited, but less so are the conditions in which young people are growing up. As researchers of perfectionism wrote, “over the last 50 years, communal interest and civic responsibility have been progressively eroded, replaced by a focus on self-interest and competition in a supposedly free and open marketplace.” In other words, as social safety nets continue to erode, capitalism continues to demand more of us, and our structures and workplaces offer progressively less stability and security, our best shot at those things seems to be fixating on what we, individually, can do, and often, that looks like chasing “perfection” in a last-shot attempt to get everything to turn out okay.
We know that perfectionism has risen — in particular, it has increased significantly in young people since the 1980s. Relatedly, researchers have found that perfectionism connects to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. So much of what it means to be “successful,” “accomplished,” and “perfect” tie directly into capitalism. There’s also research that shows the structural inequities embedded in the standards perfectionism upholds: “ Youth reporting higher levels of racism experiences were more likely to be in maladaptive perfectionism classes.” Perfectionism manifests across different aspects of our identities, and the standards, expectations, and ideals of “goodness” perfectionism sets are not the same for everyone.
Too often, perfectionism still presented not just a necessary quality to succeeding in a society in which “perfect” has overlapped “good” or “fine” as the standard. It’s heralded as a virtue, something aligned with people who are ambitious, and work hard, and have their lives “together,” often without realizing the detriment of those very qualities. Instead of questioning how much perfectionism is a good thing, it feels like there’s a different question worth asking: Why has perfectionism become something that feels necessary, and why is so much of the common advice around it waiting to grow out of it?
“I think when we simply tell people things like “don’t worry, you will grow out of it,” it minimizes what a significant role it is playing in their lives,” says Dr. Jessi Gold, MD, MS. “It also invalidates their feelings in the future when they do not, in fact, grow out of it.” Some research has found that, as perfectionists grow older, they don’t suddenly snap into caring less: In a way, perfectionism unravels them. They might be more prone to guilt, envy, and anxiety and — in a counterpoint to so much of what perfectionism is typically considered to hold — might become less conscientious, reliable, and disciplined.
Plus, according to Gold, the “you’ll grow out of it!” framing skips over the nuance of coping, or adapting, which are important parts of growing up, too. Gold explains she thinks there is a possibility that, like other things, as we grow up, a trait remains part of us without interfering with our day-to-day, because we’ve learned ways to adapt, or even quiet it. And, even if we will grow out of it, why should formative years be polluted with the sensation that we’re all one mistake away from ruining the rest of our lives — that not only do we need to be good, fine, and okay, we need to be exceptional and perfect in order for life to remain in balance? In regard to young adults, the common claim is that they’re simply “too sensitive,” or “too spoiled,” to cope with mistakes or failure. A deeper question is: Is it truly them that can’t handle failing, stumbling, or second-guessing, or is that they exist in a society that truly can’t handle them doing so?
Sometimes, in therapy, Gold says, individuals learn to accept something as part of who they are, so it doesn’t interfere in a negative way like it did before. “We learn to basically label things: “oh, that is my perfectionism,” and it helps identify behaviors and patterns and reactions,” explains Gold. “It helps us not only understand why we are acting the way we are acting, but helps us react differently.” Still, she clarifies, it doesn’t just switch off one day: It can get quieter with help, exposure, and work.
Ironically, most of the “solutions” to perfectionism I found when searching seemed to demand a kind of perfectionism themselves: A steely resolve to out-willpower your own drive for perfection. Perfectionism sets a standard, and frankly, most of our workplaces and schools and even peer groups do seem to like it when we meet it — after all, internalized perfectionism can look, from the outside, like one just has it “together” and that things are going well. But then comes the pivot point, when it becomes obvious someone is struggling, and the talking points change: You care too much! You’re overreacting! No one is perfect!
True, so why is the demand always that we patch up our own perfectionism, or wait until we’ve grown up enough to abandon it? In talking to young adults about perfectionism, so many articulated a sense of relief to be talking about it at all: To admit that, even if it all looked “perfect,” they were struggling. Knowing others are imperfect shatters the idea that we have to be.
Especially as graduation season looms, and students are thrust into a world ripe with conflict, changing circumstances, and altered expectations, reframing perfectionism not as a virtue, not as a bad habit you’ll grow out of, but something we can address with help and a collective reimagining of what “good enough” means is necessary. Perfectionism shouldn’t be the gold star of someone’s personhood. With societies and schools and social media feeds populated with messages to “do your best!” and “shoot for the stars!” maybe instead, we should shift the messaging: You can be just okay, or just good, and still matter — and when you’re struggling, you’re not alone in changing it.