Perfectly Imperfect

A new study from PsychTests Aim Inc. has analyzed perfectionistic tendencies in different generations and reflects on how they come to be and how they can change with age.

Do you have the feeling that everything you do must be perfect, or else you will have failed? If so, you may be a perfectionist. For the last 22 years Dr. Ilona Jerabek, president of PsychTests AIM Inc., has been studying perfectionism — what it is, how it manifests itself, who’s most vulnerable and whether there is a treatment.

Dr. Jerabek delineates there is a major difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism. “When you strive for excellence, you’re doing your best. Perfectionists have the feeling that unless whatever they do is perfect, it affects their self-worth in the eyes of themselves and in the eyes of other people.”

Researchers at PsychTests analyzed information from 1,324 people who were administered a Perfectionism Test. They organized the samples by generation and then assessed the degree to which subjects felt pressured from family, employers, society or themselves to be perfect. Dr. Jerabek concludes, “Centennials and millennials have developed the belief that love, respect and acceptance are contingent upon how close they are to perfection in every way. This pressure to be perfect that young people feel, although often self-imposed, could originate from pressure from parents, teachers, peers or the media, especially social media. Many younger people are inundated with the message they are hopelessly flawed if they don’t look or dress in a specific way, possess certain luxuries, get good grades, get into a good school, make a lot of money, get married, etcetera.”

Dr. Jerabek’s research also indicated children may learn to associate success with perfection and failure with imperfection. If their grades, achievements or body don’t fit their parents’, teachers’, peers’ or society’s ideals, they may start developing the belief that they are defective beyond repair. They start to manifest this mindset that they’ll only be loved if they fit into this idealized image. It reinforces the idea that being perfect is essential, and the risk of losing approval becomes excruciatingly painful. Subsequently, young people may become caught in a vicious cycle of perfectionism.

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According to Dr. Jerabek, major perfectionist traits can have significant psychological ramifications. “Once this belief is internalized, it results in self-esteem issues, self-image problems, the tendency to set impossible standards and harsh self-criticism when these standards are not met.” Dr. Jerabek’s research indicates, “This in turn could lead to mental health issues or compel the person to adopt extreme methods to reach these impossible standards, like starving themselves in order to achieve a ‘perfect’ body. Research has also shown that in some cases, extreme perfectionism can lead to self-harm.”

One type of therapy Dr. Jerabek recommends to decrease perfectionist traits is “cognitive reappraisal,” which is an emotional regulation strategy that involves changing one’s emotional response by reinterpreting the meaning of the emotional stimulus. For example, if a teenager fails a driving test, they may believe they are a complete loser. From a cognitive reappraisal perspective, the young driver may revisit their emotional response and view failing the test as an opportunity to improve their driving skills.

What does all this research constitute for people who are extreme perfectionists or have perfectionist tendencies? Will they ever be OK with not being the best? Will they live the rest of their lives with that underlying feeling of fear and feeling disheartened if they don’t rise above the rest of us? Dr. Jerabek articulates, “As we age, we gain maturity. We realize that perfection is not really conducive to success, and that it can keep you from meeting deadlines and being the best you can be because [of] all of this fear that is going on. So as we age, we gain perspective and drop some of these limiting beliefs.”

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Ilona Jerabek, Ph.D., earned her doctoral degree from the Medical School of Sherbrooke University. She is currently the President and Scientific Director of PsychTests AIM Inc., where she delves deep into the inner workings of human nature.

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