What is toxic perfectionism? Learn how to detoxify your life
Perfectionism is on the rise — but that’s not necessarily a good thing. We speak to psychologist Dr. Mary Hoang about the downfalls of perfectionism, and how to reframe your mindset.

If you, like me, are a perfectionist, you probably found 2020 to be the most challenging, anxiety-ridden and paralysing year of your life. Navigating your early 20s is difficult enough; add a global pandemic, the feeling that the world is moving forward while you’re at a complete standstill, and the most competitive job market imaginable, and you’ve got a perfectionist’s nightmare.

You can feel yourself losing control. The “what if” scenarios begin to take over and suddenly your life is being governed by an intense obsession to master a new skill, write the perfect blog, keep the momentum going no matter what. Self-doubt feeds on your insecurities. The pursuit of perfection is diminished to a mere cycle of avoiding failures. Cue: an internal battle between tasks that need doing, planning and re-planning your approach hundreds of times, and still feeling like it isn’t quite good enough.

Being a perfectionist is generally thought of as an advantage — but we often forget the toxicity that perfectionism can breed. “Perfectionism often exists hand in hand with anxiety. In the face of uncertainty, trying to make things ‘perfect’ offers us a semblance of control,” explains Dr. Mary Hoang, author of Darkness is Golden and founder and head psychologist of The Indigo Project.

“We can often engage in perfectionistic behaviours to try to ward off uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, but unfortunately it’s not an effective strategy and usually just results in the continuous corrosion of our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.”

So, what actually is perfectionism?

Dr. Hoang defines perfectionism as “a mindset which demands that everything you do (or attempt to do) must be perfect, flawless or without fault”. But it’s a fact of life that nothing is ever really “perfect”, so this mindset often traps us in a cyclical state of panic, self-deprecation and anxiety.

“If you have internalised a perfectionist self-dialogue, you might experience shame when unable to perform to a certain standard, feel paralysed in the face of new tasks or challenges, procrastinate like a champ, and tie up your sense of self-worth in your external accomplishments,” Dr. Hoang says.

But perfectionism is not to be confused with high-achieving behaviour or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). External accomplishments are a separate ballgame to the mindset of perfectionism. And OCD is an anxiety disorder that “is more about the inner battle with obtrusive thoughts that lead someone to perform obsessive and compulsive behaviours in order to try to banish or ease distressing thoughts”, explains Dr. Hoang.

Perfectionism and society

In a 1991 study, psychologists Hewitt and Flett identified three types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism driven by your own impossibly high standards that can lead to optimised motivation, productivity and success; other-oriented perfectionism holding others to high standards, being overly critical and struggling to delegate work — whether that be in your career or in a relationship; and socially prescribed perfectionism that stems from a sense of urgency and pressure to be perfect in everything you do, leading to performance anxiety, questioning your self-worth, and an obsession of not being good enough.

For so many of us, failure is not an option, but the overwhelming anxiety of maintaining a stable job, relationship, financial wellbeing, social life, Instagram feed — the list goes on — sparks a sense of failure that, ironically, often leads to a decline in quality of these aspects of our lives.

This unspoken pressure for young people to “have it all” is only exacerbated by social media. “It’s easy to fall into the mindset of ‘failing’ or being ‘behind in life’ when you don’t have all the goalpost achievements to show off in your latest Instagram posts. The reality is that us humans live messy and complex lives,” says Dr. Hoang.

“We’re forced to face unexpected obstacles and adversity, maybe things that used to fulfil us don’t anymore, or there is so much we want to achieve that we feel overwhelmed at the prospect of moving towards it,” she shares. “This is all incredibly human and the best thing we can do is acknowledge the feelings that come up in the face of these struggles and challenges. We don’t need to combat these feelings, but rather acknowledge them, be with them, and maybe — with a less hostile relationship towards our feelings — we can see what they’re trying to tell us about ourselves and our needs.

The antidote to perfectionism

The first step in detoxifying perfectionism is to understand how perfectionism is impacting, or in some cases (like mine), dictating your life. The next step is confronting your fear of failure, and therefore, your perfectionism. “Feel the fear, and do it anyway,” quotes Dr. Hoang.

Each of us has our own definition of “failure”. For some it’s feeling as though our relationship isn’t benefiting us anymore, but not wanting the time we put in to be a waste we stay, and it becomes toxic. The same goes for jobs, friendships, values, life goals. It can be hard to let go, to challenge ourselves to take a different approach — one that often involves what we perceive as failing. But the fact is, we need to “fail” in order to grow.

“Begin to challenge the notion that nothing is worth doing unless it’s done ‘perfectly’,” Dr. Hoang says. “Sometimes things are worth doing out of curiosity and play, to develop a new skill, or to nurture the mindset that you can fail or mess up at something and that’s not the end of the world. It’s human to make mistakes and it builds resilience when we do and we find out we can rise in the wake of them.”

It takes a lot of resilience — but if 2020 taught us anything, it’s just that.

Georgia Nelson is a journalist based on the South Coast of NSW and the features writer at WellBeing and WILD. She has a penchant for sustainable beauty, slow fashion and feminist literature. Find her on Instagram @geo_rose.