Why do we want to be perfect? All you need to know about perfectionism

Perfectionism isn’t a new phenomenon. It has been discussed in the media, in parliament, at educational institutions and researched. Yet I sit here and choose to bring it up once again. Because even though there are discussions in the corners, I still find that it infiltrates many people.

I, myself, am part of this culture, and a large part of my circle of friends also fall victim to this pursuit of perfection and success. But to what extent is this culture created by ourselves and our inner voice, and how big a role do external factors, such as social media, companies and politicians, play in our zero-error society?

Karoline Denning

[Disclaimer, this blog takes its point of view from a Danish standpoint hence the grade ‘12’ etc.]

As we sat in the office brainstorming ideas for blogs, topics like ‘grade competition’ and ‘culture of perfection’ came up. Topics most of us could relate to in one way or another. Whether it was pressure from university, the job, social media or elsewhere. Therefore, I decided to go in depth with the subject and reach out to someone who knows a great deal more about the culture of perfection than me.

From the time I wrote to Sanne Østergaard Nissen, it did not take much more than a couple of hours, then she had responded that she would love to. We threw a date in the calendar, and I started writing down questions – a little anxious about having to interview an expert in the field. But there was nothing to be nervous about, Sanne and I had a long and interesting conversation on the subject, which I wished we had not only planned an hour for. This conversation became a blog post.

I hope you, like me, become wiser about perfectionism and its pros and cons. Happy reading!

What will we go through?

Adaptive perfectionism vs. Maladaptive perfectionism

The gray zone

When did the culture of perfection begin?

Where does the pressure come from?

How do we change the culture – can we do that?

But what if perfectionism is my identity?

The three types of perfectionism

Take back the power!

Be your own best friend

Sanne Østergaard Nissen is an associate professor, lecturer and management consultant at UCL in subjects under management, positive psychology, coaching, personal development and collaboration. She is also the author of the book “Skønheden i det uperfekte – hvordan vi slipper fri af tidens perfekthedskultur” (Translated into: “The beauty in the imperfect – how we let go of today’s culture of perfection”).

Sanne is originally MSc(Econ.) in International Marketing and worked for many years with marketing beauty brands. Interest in people began to increase, and Sanne therefore took a coaching education. Paradoxically, it was the work with ideals and the marketing background that resulted in Sanne’s interest in perfectionism.

“On that side, I have always been very fascinated and interested in ideals. But it was really only when I started working with students at UC Syd that I found out that these ideals also impact us. So, in many ways, it also creates some maladaptive patterns.”

Sanne Nissen

This became the beginning of Sanne’s master’s in positive psychology. How can we help all of us who walk around wishing to be perfect?

Adaptive perfectionism vs. Maladaptive perfectionism 

Perfectionism is not exclusively a negative thing. “There is no doubt that there is in perfectionism, really also a desire to want to do well. Like wanting to perform well, and wanting to have a good life basically.” But how can it be that some people can distort this perfectionism? Sanne tells me that in perfectionism research, two types of perfectionism are distinguished – the adaptive and the maladaptive.

In adaptive lies that one sets goals for oneself. The goals can be ambitious, there is nothing wrong with that. When you reach those goals, you pat yourself on the shoulder, give yourself a high-five in the mirror or otherwise acknowledge the hard work that resulted in you reaching your goal. It is a healthy motivation that you thrive on. Maladaptive perfectionism starts out the same way. Ambitious goals and strong motivation; but when the goal is reached, you do not have the same feeling of success.

“You start telling yourself ‘the goal was not set high enough’ [..] and even if you get a 12, you can start with such thoughts: ‘Well, it was also just because they thought I was nice,’ or ‘I was just lucky that day´ [..] then you immediately start talking yourself down.”

Sanne Nissen

The maladaptive perfectionism thus helps to push people into anxiety, stress, depression, and eating disorders – self-destructive patterns of behavior that really tears on your mental health. You can read more about student mental health.

The gray zone 

So we just have to find the point before the fall into maladaptive perfectionism. If only it were that easy. Research has not found the golden recipe on how to catch a human before they fall towards the maladaptive obsession with perfection. Sanne and I discuss how we then discover that you, or someone close to you, are developing worrying tendencies.

Sanne says that oftentimes it is our loved ones who notice that we are not well. It often manifests itself in behavioral change. For example, if an extroverted person stops attending social events, or if one generally shuts off from their surroundings.

“That’s one of the things I really advocate about is that we have the guts to ask each other how we feel.”

Sanne Nissen

Talk to one another. Say what you’ve noticed, put into words why you are worried about the other. A lot of the time you can start feeling when perfectionism takes over within yourself. You are overwhelmed with thoughts, stomach pain, palpitations, and other physical discomforts. You may be overthinking or develop other bad habits.

When did the culture of perfection begin?

Before the interview, I had tried to google when this culture of perfection started – but I found no articles, studies, or anything else that could point me in the direction of when it began. My own theory is based on that with the advent of social media came to a tsunami of perfection obsession. So I asked Sanne if my theory held true. ‘Somewhat’ was the answer.

The first remarkable shift occurred after World War II. The average Dane had more money in their pocket, and the consumer culture gripped Denmark. One was no longer forced to stop their stockings, one could actually invest in themselves.

In addition, Denmark’s bond with the United States and its culture grew closer. We welcomed the idealization culture with open arms, and to that came a large portion of obsession as well. The new logic became ‘if I just buy this product, then I will be the ultimate mother, boyfriend, son, etc.’.

Excelerate Careers and thesis collaborations.
Perfectionism har many faces

Okay, so social media does not play a big role? Yes, it does. Sanne said that if one has to roughly sketch perfectionism’s rise in society, it would come in two waves: after World War II and with the introduction to social media.

“And then it’s clear that this ‘ideal-worshiping’ has moved closer with social media”

Sanne Nissen

Not only do we keep up with others’ ‘perfect lives’, everyone now has access to retouch their photos. What was previously reserved for the marketing industry and the ‘tech-savy’ now became public property using filters and photoshop apps. Where previously the distance between the models on the front page of Vogue and oneself was acknowledged, it has now become even more difficult to know what is real and what is a set reality.

Where does the perfection pressure come from?

We know that pop culture, fashion magazines, and social media play a role in the rise of perfectionism, but where does the pressure really come from?

Because we are not just perfecting our exterior with filters, diets, and plastic surgeries, we also want to be perfect parents, get the grade 12, meanwhile being the best at our job.

Sanne says that perfectionism research has found that parents bear a great responsibility for the development of their children’s perfectionism. There may be several reasons for this.

The obvious reason, and the one I first thought of myself, is when parents turn their children into ‘small projects’, as Sanne calls it. That is when parents pressure their child to accomplish something the parents want more than the child.

It could, for example, be that you have to be the one with the highest grade point average in the class or the best football player on the team. Here the child is pressured to constantly have to prove their worth, which undoubtedly makes its mark.

The second reason Sanne told me about, I had never thought about before. Overprotecting your child can result in perfectionism. Helicopter parents who clear the way for their children are a growing problem. It is, in a way, as destructive as the parents who cultivate their ‘small projects’.

The reason this is really a disservice is that you are staging a reality where mistakes are not a part of everyday life. In other words, the child gets a culture shock when one day they have to stand on their own two feet and fail for the first time.

“You are worth loving if you get 12 or if you are a certain way”

Sanne Nissen

If one is to talk about the ideal upbringing, from the point of view of perfectionism, then it would ideally be to grow up with an approach to life that ‘you just have to see how things go’, ‘see what happens’, ‘what is the worst that can happen’? This way you avoid the feeling of failure when things don’t go perfectly!

How do we change the perfectionism culture – can we do that?

The million-dollar question: How do we put an end to the culture of perfectionism? Can we slow down the development?

Researchers within the field don’t know how to combat this trend either. But, the more light we shine on this trend, well, the more people fight against it. We see this, among other things, with the #bodypositivity movement on social media and a greater representation in the media in general.

In continuation of the role of parents from before, you must be able to give your children freer rein at an early age. Let them dirty their clothes, and let them make mistakes. Educate them to take chances without fear of failure.

Don’t be scared of failure

In addition, there is the school system. Sanne and I talked about how the school weighs and compares students in the Danish school. For example, at a relatively early age you are assessed whether you are ‘ready for high school’ or not. The grades themselves may not be such a big issue, the problem arises when they have to stand alone without feedback. This creates a space where it’s about the goal and not the process – and even though the process may have been good, it will not be able to compensate if the goal is not reached. This is not a healthy approach to learning.

But what if perfectionism is my identity? 

When Sanne is out lecturing, people sometimes come up to her and ask: “But what if I have only come so far because of my perfectionism? I could not have achieved all that I have achieved without my perfectionism.”

Having to let go of your perfectionism can feel like a huge loss of control, a facade crash. What if I am my perfectionism – then who am I without it?

Despite a self-awareness that tells you that you are stressed, depressed, or otherwise not taking care of yourself, the choice to leave your perfectionism may seem more overwhelming. In continuation of that, I asked Sanne if perfectionism is identity-creating. She said, first of all, that questions of identity, personality, and patterns of behavior are more or less impossible to answer because there is no definitive conclusion.

But as Sanne sees it, perfectionism is a mask you put on. It’s our personal branding so that we can attract the right job, the perfect partner, etc.

“Could you have done something where you were better towards yourself, kinder towards yourself or nicer towards yourself? Could you have given yourself some good breaks where you had prioritized being with your friends, could you have made sure to go for a walk or take a bath, or whatever it might be? Could you be good to yourself in the process rather than perhaps hitting yourself in the head so much?”

Sanne Nissen

So really, the best thing is not to let go of perfectionism from one day to the next (which I think most perfectionists wouldn’t be able to), but to be curious about your perfectionism, and question its warning signs.

The three types of perfectionism

Within the perfectionism research they distinguish between three types of perfectionism: the self-oriented perfectionism, the other-oriented perfectionism, and the socially prescribed perfectionism.

The self-oriented perfectionism

The self-oriented perfectionism is in regard to yourself and the high expectations you place upon yourself. It’s the voice in your head that is difficult to ignore and very, very stubborn.

The other-oriented perfectionism

The other-oriented perfectionism is when you place high expectations on others and want them to deliver a whole lot. It can for example be that you get annoyed with your group members if they aren’t working hard enough.

The socially prescribed perfectionism

The socially prescribed perfectionism is the one that is on the rise. It’s the expectations from your surroundings that they expect you to live up to. What do the others think I should do?

Examples of this can be that your parents are only proud if you manage to get 12s, or that your friends will get upset with you if you don’t answer as soon as you see their message. It may even be that your body doesn’t curve in the right way like the models on Instagram.

And what do you do with this information? How do you get rid of your perfectionism? You self-reflect and take back control.

How to overcome perfectionism? Take back the power!

And how do you do that? Well, it’s easier said than done. A good way can be to ask yourself “why are good grades so important to me?” In short, speak to yourself as you would a friend. This helps to prioritize your values. What is important to me? Being a good friend or getting good grades? Implement good habits in your student life.

When you start focusing your energy on other aspects of life than what you wish to perfect, then your perfectionism will take up less and less space. The less perfectionism takes up, the less vulnerable one feels. So, if you didn’t manage to get the grade you wished for, then it only takes up a fraction of your life rather than all of it.

Write a Kick-ass Thesis Topic for Your Candidate

Another way is to work on your black/white thinking. The world is rarely black and white, nevertheless, perfectionists tend to think along those lines – it’s all or nothing. If I don’t perfect this, the world will come crashing down. I will tell you right now, it most likely won’t. In Sanne’s book ’Skønheden i det uperfekte’ she elaborates 7 thought-traps one can work on in order to deal with perfectionism. 

“One thing is to know about it [perfectionism] that doesn’t mean it goes away. Even though I have been researching it, and written a book about, and done all kinds of projects about it, then I can still be hugely affected by it and maybe even more affected by it because I know so much about it.”

Sanne Nissen

A good tip to deal with perfectionism: Be your own best friend

There is no quick fix, no miracle medicine or wishing well that can take away the stress that follows perfectionism. It requires processing and attention. Perfectionism isn’t just an issue of the eating-disordered girl – it’s just as much a problem of the sleepless, professional athlete and the depressed, stay-at-home mom. Perfectionism has lots of faces and therefore there isn’t an answer to how we conquer it.

Even the perfectionism scientist Sanne can experience the feeling of inadequacy. The National Health Profile has recently been published with data collected from 2021. It showed that Danes are increasingly scoring lower on the mental health scale compared to the same survey in 2017. We can almost call it the ‘perfection epidemic’. Thus, it is important that we get perfectionism on the agenda – both academically and professionally but also personally. It shouldn’t be scary not to be perfect and it should never be a taboo. 

I am well aware that this blog post has not cured your perfectionism but it has hopefully set some thoughts into motion – maybe you will recognize some unhealthy patterns or behaviors with yourself or a loved one. 

And though it might be difficult to remember: it is possible to live a perfect, imperfect life.