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What is Perfectionism?

The surrealist mixed-media painting portrays a pristine white room with immaculate walls, spotless floors, and perfectly arranged furniture that is made up of disparate and incongruous elements. A chair made out of a giant pencil, a lamp made out of a birdcage, and curtains made out of cascading ribbons. In the center of the room stands a figure with their back turned to the viewer, dressed in a suit, with their hair slicked back, holding a clipboard and pen in their hands. The figure's rigid posture and unwavering attention to detail, embodied by the lightbulb representing their constant need for illumination and clarity, is juxtaposed by the ruler making up their torso, representing their inflexible adherence to rules and guidelines. Their arms are made of paintbrushes, symbolizing their desire for control and precision. The surrealism of the painting conveys the idea that perfectionism is a distorted and unrealistic way of looking at the world, often leading to obsessive and rigid behavior


Perfectionism, the elusive pursuit of flawlessness, has become an all-consuming goal in modern society. From striving for the perfect body to the perfect career, many individuals have become consumed by the idea of perfection. But what is perfectionism, and why has it become such a prevalent phenomenon in our society?

Scientific research has shed light on the neurological and psychological aspects of perfectionism. Neurologically, perfectionism has been linked to heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning, decision-making, and regulating emotions. Perfectionists tend to have a heightened sense of self-control, which can lead to self-imposed stress and pressure. They also tend to have increased activation in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for processing emotions, indicating that perfectionism is often linked to anxiety and negative emotions.

Psychologically, perfectionism has been linked to a variety of negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Perfectionists may struggle with setting realistic goals, accepting constructive feedback, and dealing with failure, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Perfectionism can manifest in different subtypes, including self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionists set high standards for themselves and strive for excellence, while other-oriented perfectionists impose their high standards on others, often leading to conflict and strained relationships. Socially prescribed perfectionists feel intense pressure to meet the expectations of others, leading to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

The origins of perfectionism can be traced back to various philosophers and religious leaders who placed a high value on moral and spiritual purity. In psychology, the term was first introduced by Karen Horney in her book "Neurosis and Human Growth," where she described perfectionism as a defense mechanism against anxiety and insecurity.

Perfectionism can be seen in various fields, such as sports, academia, and the arts. Olympic athletes may exhibit perfectionistic tendencies by setting unrealistic goals and engaging in excessive training, often at the expense of their physical and mental health. Similarly, students who strive for perfect grades may experience high levels of stress and anxiety, leading to burnout and decreased motivation. In the arts, perfectionism can lead to a fear of sharing one's work with others, as well as an inability to accept constructive criticism.

While perfectionism can motivate individuals to strive for excellence, it can also lead to self-criticism, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Understanding the neurological and psychological aspects of perfectionism can help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and lead a more fulfilling life. It's time to let go of the elusive pursuit of perfection and embrace the beauty of imperfection. After all, imperfection is what makes us human.

Take Action: Things you can do today

  1. Set Realistic Goals: Perfectionists often set unrealistic and unattainable goals, leading to a sense of failure and self-criticism. Setting realistic goals that are challenging yet achievable can help promote a sense of accomplishment and reduce anxiety.

  2. Practice Self-Compassion: Perfectionists often have high self-criticism and harsh self-judgment. Practicing self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance. This can help to reduce self-blame and promote positive self-talk.

  3. Embrace Mistakes and Failure: Perfectionists often view mistakes and failure as unacceptable and shameful. However, accepting that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process can help to reduce anxiety and promote personal growth. Embracing failure as an opportunity to learn and improve can also help to reduce the fear of failure.

  4. Seek Social Support: Perfectionists often isolate themselves and may have difficulty asking for help. Seeking social support from friends, family, or a mental health professional can provide encouragement, advice, and emotional support.

  5. Engage in Relaxation Techniques: Perfectionists may experience high levels of stress and anxiety. Engaging in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help to reduce stress and promote a sense of calmness.

Explore More

  1. "The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are" by Brené Brown - This book offers a compassionate and practical approach to letting go of perfectionism and embracing one's authentic self.

  2. "Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love" by Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo - This book offers a step-by-step guide to overcoming perfectionism and creating a more fulfilling life.

  3. "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" by Carol S. Dweck - This book explores the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset and how shifting to a growth mindset can help individuals overcome perfectionism and achieve their goals.

  4. "The Perfectionist's Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes" by Jeff Szymanski - This book provides practical strategies for overcoming perfectionism, including accepting imperfection and learning from mistakes.

  5. "The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done" by Piers Steel - This book explores the psychological and neurological factors that contribute to procrastination, including perfectionism, and provides practical strategies for overcoming procrastination and increasing productivity.


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