The Boundless Desire For Perfection: Exploring Socially Prescribed Perfectionism

Aliya Ojuade
8 min readMar 2, 2023

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The effects, the cycle, and the variables.

Image from nationsvoice.co

I believe there is clear irony in the fact that I’ve been sitting here for several minutes, trying to formulate the perfect introduction to my article on perfectionism. I have erased and restarted multiple times with the mindset that I will create a perfect article no one can criticize. But in doing so, I’ve successfully convinced myself that no introduction will ever be good enough.

Brené Brown, a research professor at the Graduate College of Social Work, describes perfectionism in a way that explains my situation entirely. She states that,

Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.

If I write a perfect article, I can avoid judgment and criticism that I would undoubtedly internalize. This is the detrimental mindset of a perfectionist, and it is vital to recognize just how self-destructive that mindset can be.

Perfectionism does not only apply to situations like mine. It can be seen in social settings, self-evaluations, and even assessments of others. For this reason, psychotherapists split perfectionism into different categories. In this article, I will be exploring one type: socially prescribed perfectionism.

SOCIALLY PRESCRIBED PERFECTIONISM

Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed at night, mentally reflecting on everything I did or said that day. Every interaction is closely scrutinized, and even the slightest change in someone’s expression doesn’t escape my notice.

This is not an uncommon experience for socially prescribed perfectionists, who aim to appear flawless in the eyes of others. According to the Stress & Resilience Institute, these perfectionists believe that other people will be critical of them if they fail to meet high expectations. In my case, I expressed a similar mindset for the quality of my article. If it fails to meet unattainable expectations, others will criticize my writing.

Because social perfectionists (used interchangeably with socially prescribed perfectionists) are constantly dwelling on how they are perceived by others, it becomes easy to experience feelings of discouragement or dejection. In her write-up, “Social Perfectionism”, Ruth Parchment (a Cambridge-based psychotherapist) describes how social situations carry huge interpersonal weight for these perfectionists. People’s approval can either make or break their mood. In my experience as a social perfectionist, disapproval from others can be the only reason why I’ve given up on a project or task.

In other (harsher) words, being a socially prescribed perfectionist makes you a people pleaser. There is a tendency to do things that others would approve of. Believe me, I would know — as would thousands of other people.

THE DEMOGRAPHIC

The Child-Adolescent Perfectionism Scale calculates that 25 to 30 percent of children and adolescents are prone to perfectionism. As the years pass, these numbers only seem to be rising. In an analysis of 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students, Thomas Curran, PhD, of the University of Bath and Andrew Hill, PhD, of York St John University found that the socially prescribed perfectionism score increased by 33 percent between 1989 and 2016. This means that more and more people, largely the younger generation, are constantly aiming for unattainably high standards in their everyday life.

In “Perfectionism Is Increasing, and That’s Not Good News” by Curran and Hill, attention is drawn to how young people hold irrational ideals that manifest in unrealistic expectations for looks, achievements, and belongings. With the popularity of social media apps like TikTok and Instagram, it is no surprise that many of us in this younger generation experience the desire to be excessively perfect in all aspects. From working to attain an attractive appearance to overachieving for the sake of recognition, many of us will work hard to be perceived as flawless. What we don’t realize is that in doing so, we set ourselves up for a cycle of disappointment — considering that perfection is a goal that is impossible to reach.

EFFECTS OF PERFECTIONISM AND THE “VICIOUS” CYCLE

And disappointment is one of the milder effects of perfectionism. I recently came across an intriguing case study by David D. Burns & Aaron T. Beck in which a young woman was documented to experience self-harm and depression due to her excessive perfectionist standards. When her performance was perceived as less than perfect, she would display depressive reactions. These reactions consisted of panic and a blue mood, which seemingly convinced her that it was terrible to be imperfect. As time went on, she would withdraw from her normal activities — which only made her feel unproductive and, therefore, inadequate/worthless. Burns and Beck described this “vicious cycle” as depressive thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that would continue to feed themselves. To simplify,

Perceived imperfection > depressive reactions > lack of productivity > feelings of inadequacy > right back to perceived imperfection.

Countless studies have linked social anxiety, depression, and other harmful conditions to socially prescribed perfectionism. Constantly aiming to be perfect makes it easy to slip into a cycle of self-hatred and disappointment.

Aislin Mushquash and Simon B. Sherry further explore this cycle of self-defeat in a research paper I resonate with. They studied symptoms of socially prescribed perfectionism in 317 undergraduates. The results of their research concluded that whenever people in the studied group “felt they had fallen short of others’ expectations,” they reacted with attempts to present themselves as perfect to others (“Cycle of Self-Defeat”). When people tried to present themselves as perfect, however, they would begin to feel depressed. Attempting to create a perfect facade led to this downward spiral.

The study also documented that, on average, socially prescribed perfectionists would engage in self-defeating behaviors that obstructed their efforts to present perfection. This includes binge eating, procrastination, and conflict with other people. Trying to be perfect created results that completely undermine the intended effect.

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN SOCIAL PERFECTIONISM

As an African American woman, I am no stranger to the struggles of racial discrimination. I have never considered, though, how this racial discrimination could play into my profound social perfectionism. That’s why when I came across a research paper linking the two variables, I had to talk about it.

Sharon F. Lambert, a psychologist from George Washington University, (along with cowriters W. LaVome Robinson and Nicholas S. Ialongo) studied the role of racial discrimination in African American adolescents’ social perfectionism. To preface the analysis, previous research has already suggested that African American youth experience more racial discrimination than any other youth. Thus, it was hypothesized that this discrimination would increase their perception that others hold them to high standards, successfully intensifying socially prescribed perfectionistic beliefs (“The role of socially…”)

I personally find that it is easy to blur the line between high standards and complete perfection. When you feel like other people expect the best from you, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what the “best” really is. As an African American, I’ve felt the need to perform above and beyond in order to “prove myself” in a society where racial prejudice is so prominent. What I’ve realized is that the standards I’m trying to reach seem to get higher and higher as time goes on. It’s like jumping up and down to catch a balloon that keeps floating higher into the sky.

In the study, 492 urban and low-income African-American adolescents, grades 7 through 9, were assessed via survey questions. The results proved the hypothesis correct, as racial discrimination showed a significant positive correlation with socially prescribed perfectionism and depressive symptoms. This means that, yes, being in a society where you are faced with prejudice and racial discrimination does create an increased desire to be perfect.

All of this goes to say, the roots of perfectionism are much larger than we may think. It is important to remember that perfectionism does not appear from nowhere. Understanding the origins of socially-prescribed perfectionism is the key step to overcoming the issues that it brings.

WHAT DO WE MAKE OF THESE RESULTS?

Throughout this article, we have discussed the definition of socially-prescribed perfectionism, its effects, the demographic, and its relationship with racial discrimination. But what exactly do we make of these findings?

As a perfectionist myself, I aspire to be able to recognize high standards vs impossibly high standards. I have not fully rid my mindset of perfectionism, but I am actively working on overcoming the toxic mentality. That being said, I’d like to share ideas for overcoming socially-prescribed perfectionism that I find to be effective.

Recently, I’ve been living by this quote (which I “made up”, but someone has probably said before): never apologize for taking up space. Often, as socially-prescribed perfectionists, we tend to believe that all eyes are on us. Social interactions weigh heavily on our mental health, and the slightest bit of disapproval feels like a reprimand. For these reasons, I noticed that I’d make myself smaller in certain situations to avoid judgment. I would stay silent and constantly apologize with the intention of making myself seem like a better person. But really, who was this helping?

In her article, “The Price of Perfectionism…”, Louise Jackson from Thrive Global mentions how perfectionism is based on a desire to please. By shrinking myself in public settings, my intentions were inherently for the benefit of others. I was trying to please other people by minimizing my presence. In reality, though, we are all human beings. We are allowed to take up space and should never feel like we need to apologize for it. Internalizing this type of mindset is an excellent way to battle the toxicity of social perfectionism.

Another situation I noticed as a perfectionist is placing too much weight on superficial values. That is, basing our worth on a value that we deem vital. A second quote from Brené Brown that paints this picture is as follows:

We [perfectionists] all need to feel worthy of love and belonging, and our worthiness is on the line when we feel like we are never ___ enough (you can fill in the blank: thin, beautiful, smart, extraordinary, talented, popular, promoted, admired, accomplished).

As you can see, the values that fill in the blank aren’t necessarily life-changing. But as a perfectionist, when your worth is put into these values, it becomes easy to feel inadequate. Failing to be “talented” enough or “smart” enough creates a sense of failure that thrusts you into the cycle of self-defeat (as mentioned earlier).

At times like this, we need to come back down to reality. Using one factor to determine your worth is only self-destructive. We are not objects; the scope of our worth is far beyond quantifiable metrics. It is important to remember this. Believing that you are worth so much more will help you realize that you do not need to be absolutely perfect at one thing.

I have been working on implementing these ideas to diminish my sense of perfectionism. I hope that these can provide value to any social perfectionists out there seeking a place to start change.

I will conclude this article with a quote that my sister once told me (and before you ask, yes, I love quotes). Just because you have been walking for your entire life does not mean you never trip and fall. Just because you have been working on upholding your idea of perfection does not mean failing makes you inadequate.

To all of you socially prescribed perfectionists, it is okay to fail. It is okay to make mistakes. We are all human and none of us are perfect. It is up to us to break the vicious cycle of perfectionism and engage in a healthier mindset.

And on that note — I believe there is clear irony in the fact that I’ve been sitting here for several minutes, trying to formulate the perfect conclusion to my article on perfectionism.

ALIYA OJUADE

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