An Open Letter to my perfectionist friend about healthy perfectionism | Teen Ink

An Open Letter to my perfectionist friend about healthy perfectionism

May 6, 2021
By Emma_Leee BRONZE, Hangzhou, Other
Emma_Leee BRONZE, Hangzhou, Other
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Dear Laura:

    Hello! How do you do? I’m sorry to hear from your mom that you are highly weary and miserable due to your perfectionism, but don’t know how to change this situation. In fact, you are not in the minority. According to the American Board of Professional Psychology, “the extent to which young people attach an irrational importance to being perfect has increased by 10%” (Curran and Hill 410). Well, is it an excellent choice to drop the perfectionist status? Harvard Business Review does not recommend this and instead should “look to harness the benefits while simultaneously acknowledging and mitigating potential consequences”. So, transforming the current pathological perfectionism into a healthy perfectionism and figuring out why it is pathological now is an effective method to achieve this goal. 

    American Psychological Association finds that young people today “are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly” (Soeiro). Society has been instilling in them the idea that one must be perfect enough to be recognized as "successful" as defined by the public. Therefore, perfectionists make themselves invulnerable and omnipotent to seek external approval, to show their value to the outside world, and to avoid the pain of being blamed, humiliated, and criticized. Like you, the perfectionists set their eyes rather than themselves, constantly wondering, “What do they think of me?” Brown, a professor of social work at the University of Houston, says that “perfectionism is a hustle”, and it is a vivid illustration of this undesirable condition. However, if one’s concern is no longer on himself, how can he ensure that his behavior is not disjointed? Society for Personality and Social Psychology demonstrates that perfectionists tend to perform worse when they focus first on the evaluations of others (Premuzic). External recognition becomes a shackle, something that prevents us from improving. Instead, shift the object of our focus to oneself and reflect on “how can I improve?” When you are endowed with value by yourself, you will be more motivated to do the next thing, thus entering a virtuous cycle. That’s what Curran, a social and personality psychologist, appeals to young people to do – “At its root, perfectionism is about perfecting the self. Or more precisely, perfecting an imperfect self.” For instance, due to your perfectionism, you always regard the lousy side of events. Thus, you can adequately make your mind positive, combining the positive mindset of an optimist with the more rational thinking mode of pessimism to become an optimistic pessimist. And you will have advantages that optimists do not possess to contribute to your pursuit of perfection!

    Neoliberalism has been increasingly emphasized in recent years, as American Psychological Association says, and “its effect on perfectionism develops by fostering competition in the search for individual achievement” (Curran and Hill 411). This notion of competition adds another layer of perfectionism – their performance must be better than others. Furthermore, when human vulnerabilities are on display, they are quickly regarded as signs of weakness or failure in competitions (Brown). Thus, being better drives them to be infallible and prohibits vulnerability from being exposed, which are sensitivity, anxiety, worry, and other negative emotions pursuing perfection. The action of concealing vulnerability arises accordingly. Nevertheless, if vulnerabilities are masked, positive stuff such as joy, happiness, and gratitude would also be paralyzed. When these emotions are generated, the perfectionist does not take pleasure in them on account of the fact that they are seen as existing on a universal and ordinary emotional level. That’s probably the reason for “perfectionists have higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety,” says Harvard Business Review (Swider, et. al.). Numbing the vulnerabilities is the same as ignoring the internal cries for help that must be listened to carefully to avoid further suffering. Hence, face up to your vulnerabilities!

    Well, do you have the opposite view that the pain associated with perfectionism as described above is bound to happen? You may think that just as the process of exercise is bound to be exhausting, the pursuit of perfection is bound to be painful. But it is one thing to pursue perfection with self-improvement and concern for vulnerability, and quite another to practice “self-mutilating” perfectionism to achieve perfection. A study by National Health Service finds that the perfectionist finds it difficult to bounce back because he or she is too busy beating themselves up and re-running in their minds all the things they should have done better (Yap). Improving oneself and focusing on one’s vulnerability to reduce suffering can reduce the amount of energy spent on the process of beating oneself up. They significantly enhance the chances of perfectionists to “bounce back” and substantially increasing their probability of achieving perfection.

    Focus on self-improvement and embrace vulnerability in response to internal cries for help, thus gaining the motivation to bounce back more robust. Those tips are also the catalyst that facilitates perfectionists to enter a virtuous cycle finally. I hope you can explore a unique path of developing healthy perfectionism to achieve your ideal perfect!

Best wishes,


The author's comments:

I am a college student attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in psychology, and my pen name is EmmaLee. I have a deep concern for the unhealthy perfectionism of today's students, which is the focus of my recent research, and have unique insights about this issue, hoping to come to the aid of students who are plagued by self-abusive perfectionism. 

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