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The dark side of perfectionism

Gwyneth Paltrow, 41 recently admitted her perfectionism has often led her down the wrong life path; to not listen to her true self but instead focus on other people’s perception of her. Anna Magee, 45 editor of Healthista, can relate – here she explains the dark side of her own obsessive perfectionism 

Most teenagers’ bedroom walls are plastered with their favourite rock gods. At 18, during my last year in school mine were covered in huge poster-sized pieces of cardboard on which I’d written every single fact, date, name, stat and formula I needed to learn for my finals in different coloured marker pens. Wall-to-wall were the dates Hitler invaded the Sudeten land, the dimensions of the Pyramids’, the reasons Ophelia killed herself and more. I had put it on a tape too – it was 1987 – and listened to it on the bus.  I never went out. I didn’t have boyfriends. I studied. Needless to say, I topped the state in English and History.  For the next 27 years I applied the same exacting standards, inordinate preparation time and attention to detail to every project, job, interview and story I’ve written as well as to my diet, exercise regime and even my marriage.  I am you see, an obsessive perfectionist.

Gwyneth Paltrow full length

I am not alone. It’s estimated that around two in five of us display perfectionistic tendencies. The actress Emma Watson recently admitted to putting pressure on herself to be perfect. Gwyneth Paltrow has said she thought her perfectionism and attention to detail would lead her to ‘check myself into a mental asylum’. Paltrow recently did a special on the subject on her website Goop with guests such as Dr Brene Brown pondering the question, ‘How can we find beauty in imperfection?’ (it’s actually quite brilliant). Paltrow admitted on the site that her fear of failure often drives her constant striving to be perfect. I am hearing her.


And yet, society rewards what psychologists call positive perfectionism. Setting high standards, striving to reach goals and taking care over tiny details are seen as laudable in people like Steve Jobs.  Indeed, Yahoo chief exec Marisa Mayer’s perfectionism is well documented. ‘She will spot a lot of details other people will not notice,’ a former colleague said. ‘When you add them up in aggregate, it’s the different between a beautiful, polished product and one that feels more awkward.’


But the dark flipside is an obsessive type of perfectionism that includes stewing over mistakes, feeling pressure from others to be perfect at everything and doing things over and over again because they never seem good enough.  And while we all might aim to be perfect in certain areas of life, such as home or work, obsessive perfectionism is about needing to be perfect in many different areas of your life such as your job, relationship, diet and body.

Now, research published in April this year has found obsessive perfectionism causes extreme stress and anxiety.  Scientists at John Curtin University in Western Australia found that obsessive perfectionists with traits like mine – extreme concern over mistakes and exacting attention to detail – experienced pathological worry and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a type of continuous low level anxiety.  Indeed, I have knots in my stomach almost permanently and have taken numerous courses of anxiety medication yet I would never have blamed by perfectionism, it feels so much like part of who I am.

Although we’re always striving to achieve the next goal, bona-fide obsessive perfectionists feel little joy in our achievements.  When I won my third award for journalism, instead of elation, a little voice in my head whispered, ‘One day you’ll be exposed as the failure you are, better to try and win a fourth one.’

‘Obsessive perfectionists usually lack confidence and have a core belief about themselves of, ‘I am a failure,’ says Stephen Palmer, visiting professor of psychology at Middlesex University. It’s triggered by the slightest mistake they make and can make them feel anxious, he explains. ‘In order to prevent feeling like a failure perfectionists do things to a much higher standard than they need to and constantly set themselves ever higher goals. This is not because their achievements make them feel good but because they stop the triggering of those ‘I am a failure’ feelings,’ he says.   If I don’t achieve or tick things off my endless to-do lists my self-esteem defaults to sub-zero. Mistakes or failures can lead to scenarios in my head in which I am living on the streets with no job prospects, not a friend in the world or a pence in the bank.


I feel I have to work that little bit harder than other people to get the results or jobs that they get. As a junior in Australia my role was steaming wedding gowns on a bridal magazine. Desperate to write, I went to work every morning at 7.30am and most weekends for 12 months and wrote stories the editor never asked for then left them on her desk each Monday until she eventually caved and started publishing them.

My obsessive perfectionism starts at 5am when my alarm goes off. I light a candle and do a  20-minute mindfulness meditation to keep my anxiety contained. Then I have a pint of water and lemon and email myself my to-do list. Then I check the day’s health news – I edit a women’s health website – and plan the day’s posts or interviews. At 6.20am I drive to the gym and do 20-40 minutes of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) a type of exercise with the most proven effectiveness in the shortest time.  At 8am I shower, straighten my hair, apply make-up and head to work. So obsessive am I about my beauty regime I once left a brow bar with only one eyebrow threaded because she had the shape of the arch wrong.

This even applies to my marriage. We recently went through a spate of fighting for a few days and rather than admit we were both just stressed, I demanded we go to counselling as I was convinced we were on the brink of breaking. When I visit my family in Australia each year my mum begs me to not do my yoga or exercise in the morning and have an extra cup of tea with her before work, but I can’t because I’ll beat myself up all day for failing to tick that off my to-do list. I avoid alcohol, coffee and sugar and my diet restrictions are a running joke amongst my friends and family.

At work I know people consider me a control freak (they say so all the time) because I have little tolerance for their mistakes. But really, I checked a VAT return recently and when my bookkeeper got it wrong, I refused to pay his invoice until my husband convinced me to give him a break. ‘Stop working so hard, you’re making the rest of us look bad,’ said my 25 year old godchild recently (and I am supposed to be the example). ‘How’s world domination?’ asked a friend recently.

To be honest, it’s exhausting. A study published in The Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that female negative perfectionists like me had more day to day fatigue – both mental and physical – than night shift workers. I spend most Sundays sleeping because I have had 4-5 hours sleep each night the preceeding week so I could fit in all the exercise, meditation, work demands, deadlines and meetings I needed to in order to feel the week was worthwhile.  In the evenings, I’m too tired to talk to friends on the phone or to call my ageing aunt and check on her or even head into town for a pizza with friends (I don’t eat carbs anyway).

Obsessive perfectionists like me can even suffer serious health issues such as increased heart disease and one study found we have a 51 per increased rick of death compared to those with more relaxed personalities. The researchers hypothesised that perfectionists rarely connect with other people and lack the close sense of social support and community essential to a long, healthy life.  They’re too busy isolating themselves working endless hours to achieve one goal after another.  I can’t help feeling like I am wasting time when I stop and go to social events – even though I feel a delicious release when I see my friends and have a laugh.

I cancelled a brunch with a friend so I could rewrite this piece on a Saturday. But I’m still not happy with it. I’ll never be happy with it. Like most pieces I have written – even after 20 plus years in journalism – and despite getting paid well writing for the highest selling newspapers and magazines in the UK, I still wonder, ‘why are you paying me at all to do this? Can’t you find a real journalist?’

Perfectionists are not all created equal. Gordon Flett, a professor of health psychology at York University in Canada who has studied the subject for 20 years has identified different types of perfectionism. ‘Self-orientated perfectionists focus on their own high personal standards of perfection while other-orientated perfections have exacting standards for those around them – the chef Gordon Ramsay comes to mind’, says Professor Flett. A third kind, socially prescribed perfectionists believe that other people such as parents, bosses or colleagues are demanding perfection from them.

As a socially prescribed perfectionist, I’ll never ask for help with a project or personal issue. Deep inside, I feel that if I don’t keep achieving the next goal, people – including my family – will forget about me or stop holding me in their esteem. I would rather die than risk the disapproval of friends, relatives or colleagues and always feel I need to have some new achievement to talk about every few months from finishing a book to winning an award or launching a women’s health website. I have done all three in the last couple of years but it all seems so faint and meaningless after I have actually done it.

What is the definition of perfect?
What is the definition of perfect?

Why am I like this?  ‘Most perfectionists would have had a critical parent, older sibling or even a teacher growing up,’ says Professor Palmer. ‘Anyone of significance in their lives that criticised them or labelled them as lazy or stupid could lead them to grow up determined to prove this wrong, if only to themselves.’ I remember as a kid whenever I did well at school I would come home and say to my dad, ‘Dad, I got 95 per cent in the test!’ and the answer was always the same, ‘Why didn’t you get 100?’   It’s probably a good thing I don’t have kids myself as I show perfectionistic tendencies with other peoples’ children. I constantly grill my nieces and nephews about their academic achievements and when I am home in Australia prefer to sit in the kitchen and coach them through an assignment than take them to see a movie. I just feel that life rewards people who work hard and get things right – I can’t help it! – even though I know I’m only perpetuating what happened to me.  Last Christmas, I took a cake to a friend’s house with kids and wanted a Red Velvet flavour so rang six bakeries to find one without tetrazine.

I do have a blindspot – perhaps the reason I haven’t gone completely mad. At home I couldn’t care less about perfectly stacked magazines or ironed knickers because it’s not something I care about. I let it all pile up for the cleaner once a week and for the rest of the time, barely wash up. Perhaps subconsciously it’s my way of giving myself a break. It resonated with me when in the ‘Myth of Doing It All’ chapter in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook number two Sheryl Sandberg quoted Dr Laura Glimcher, dean of Weil Cornell Medical College who admits to slacking at home. ‘I had to decide what mattered and didn’t I learned to be a perfectionist in only the things that mattered,’ Glimcher said.

Yet changing my obsessive perfectionist behaviour feels as possible as extending the length of my legs.  But Professor Flett says obsessive perfectionists can change by learning the trait of self-compassion – to not be so hard on ourselves.  ‘Learn to accept yourself and your mistakes without self-criticism,’ he says.  He suggested lowering my standards and the demands I place on myself. Though I still find the former impossible I’ve stopped setting any more goals for a while so I can focus on the present and even made it compulsory that I go out at least one night a week, finishing work at 6pm.

‘Most importantly, he says if perfectionists feel that they need help – either physically or emotionally – they mustn’t be afraid to seek it rather than suffering in silence’.  On a new compulsory night out recently, I admitted to a friend that I was having those problems fighting my husband. She told me about something similiar happening to her and I felt a sense of shared vulnerability that I rarely get from other people; comfort that what I was going through was normal and nothing to catastrophize about. It felt so liberating. Baby steps.

  5 signs you’re a perfectionist

 1. There are times when you feel responsible for everything

 2. When things are not working out well, you feel that you must be perfect in order to get things back on track

3. You have a sense that you should be striving and keeping busy all the time to meet expectations

4. You feel a sense of shame and added pressure when you fall short of expectations, even when the expectations are not realistic

 5. You are not satisfied with your accomplishments and you can be very self-critical

Created by Professor Gordon Flett, psychology lecturer and researcher into perfectionism and health, York University, Canada

Which type of perfectionist are you?  Scientists have identified three types and while most perfectionists will have signs of all three, they’ll be dominant in one – which one are you?

SELF-PRESCRIBED You set unrealistic, exacting personal goals for yourself often by planning out how you will achieve these goals in minute detail from your workouts to your work targets and then stringently evaluate your performance. If you fail, you set higher standards to compensate. You say: ‘I strive to be the best at everything I do.’

OTHER-PRESCRIBED You expect perfection from colleagues, children, friends and your partner. If they make a mistake or fail to live up to your expectations, you criticize them. You say: ‘If I ask someone to do something, I want it done properly – what if my brain surgeon made a mistake?’

SOCIALLY-PRESCRIBED  You feel that other people expect unrelenting standards from you at home, in work and with your partner or kids. The thought of failing and having to explain that to your friends and family is unbearable. You don’t enjoy your success. You say: ‘People have come to accept nothing less than perfection from me.’


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