The New York Times: Perfectionism is a trap. Here’s how to escape.

Christina Caron
The New York Times
4 Min Read
Perfectionism among young people has skyrocketed, but experts say there are ways to quiet your inner critic.
Perfectionism among young people has skyrocketed, but experts say there are ways to quiet your inner critic. Credit: Linda Merad/NYT

Yuxin Sun, a psychologist in Seattle, sees a lot of clients at her group practice who insist they aren’t perfectionists. “‘Oh, I’m not perfect. I’m far from perfect,’” they tell her.

But perfectionism isn’t about being the best at any given pursuit, Sun said, “It’s the feeling of never arriving to that place, never feeling good enough, never feeling adequate.” And that can make for a harsh internal voice that belittles and chastises us.

Perfectionism is so pervasive that there’s a test to measure it: the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. When researchers looked at how college students have responded to the scale’s questions over time, they found that rates of perfectionism surged in recent decades, skyrocketing between 2006 and 2022.

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Thomas Curran, an associate professor of psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science who led the analysis, said the type of perfectionism with the steepest rise — socially prescribed perfectionism — was rooted in the belief that others expect you to be perfect. Today’s young person is more likely to score much higher on this measure than someone who took the test decades ago. There could be a number of causes for the uptick: increasing parental expectations, school pressures, and the ubiquity of social media influencers and advertising.

The feeling of not being good enough or that “my current life circumstances are inadequate or not sufficient” has created an “unrelenting treadmill,” Curran said, where there is “no joy in success and lots of self-criticism.”

Regardless of whether you consider yourself a perfectionist, experts say there are a number of small things you can try to keep your inner critic in check.

Get some distance from your thoughts.

Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the author of “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters and How to Harness It,” said a process called distancing is his “first line of defense” against negative thoughts.

Distancing is a way of zooming out on our inner chatter to engage with it differently. If you’re agonizing over something in the middle of the night, for example, that’s a cue to “jump into the mental time-travel machine,” he said.

Begin by imagining: “How are you going to feel about this tomorrow morning?” Anxieties often seem less severe in the light of day.

The time period could also be further into the future. Will the fact that you stumbled a few times during your big presentation today truly matter three months from now?

Another way to practice distancing is to avoid first-person language when thinking about something that upsets you.

Instead of saying: “I cannot believe I made that mistake. It was so stupid of me,” someone might gain a new perspective by saying: “Christina, you made a mistake. You’re feeling bad about it right now. But you aren’t going to feel that way forever. And your mistake is something that has happened to a lot of other people.”

In Kross’ research, he found that when people used the word “you” or their own name instead of saying “I,” and started observing their feelings as though they were an impartial bystander, it “was like flipping a switch.” It resulted in an internal dialogue that was more constructive and positive than that of the people who spoke to themselves in the first person. A number of studies have reported similar benefits to assuming a more detached point of view.

Accept what’s good enough.

Curran, who writes about his own struggles in his book “The Perfection Trap,” explained that he has worked to embrace “good enough” over perfectionism and its accompanying negative thoughts.

With perfectionism, it can feel as though nothing is ever “enough.” Accepting what’s “good enough” requires letting go, Curran said. Working nights, weekends and holidays had become part of his identity, but after the birth of his son he scaled back his hours, which became “liberating.”

His past decisions were driven by an anxious need to better himself, he added. Now, when thinking about how to spend his time, he tries to focus on the things that bring him joy, purpose and meaning.

It’s a philosophy that’s shared by Canadian physician and trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté, who said on a recent podcast that the feeling of being legitimate or worthy needs to come from within, lest people “sacrifice their playfulness, their joyfulness” for external validation.

Practice self-compassion.

In general, perfectionism is usually a survival strategy — it’s “like an armour that you wear” to feel less vulnerable, Sun said. So don’t beat yourself up for having perfectionist tendencies, she added.

But if that armour is weighing you down, it may be time to thank your perfectionism for its service and move on, much like home organizer Marie Kondo does when discarding possessions, Sun said.

“Maybe you can take off the arms first,” she said, then worked on taking off the metaphorical legs. You might want to seek out a mental health professional to help with the process.

“A lot of times I work with people on building that internal safety,” which is the ability to give yourself the validation you need to feel calm and at peace, Sun said, so that one day they can say to themselves: “I accept the way I am today, versus the way that I’m ‘supposed’ to be.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2024 The New York Times Company

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