As January draws to a close, we’d be remiss not to mention that it’s also Mental Wellness Month. At the heart of Darling content has always been a desire to speak to women in a way that resonates on a deeper level, addressing root causes or, at the very least, helping to identify and build community around previously undiscussed struggles.
We know anxiety and depression are two such issues. So is a third: perfectionism. Seemingly benign at the start, perfectionism can take many forms; however, if left unchecked, it can very easily develop into more serious mental health concerns, including the one with the highest mortality rate: an eating disorder.
A study released just last month confirms something we’ve long suspected: that perfectionist tendencies are on the rise and specifically with the millennial generation. We interviewed two professionals from the Eating Recovery Center, Liza Feilner, MA, LPC who is the clinical manager of the Child & Adolescent Program and Jamie Manwaring, PhD and ERC’s Primary Therapist, to find out more about what these findings tell us and how we can proactively adopt healthier behaviors.
Darling Magazine: What makes millennials, in particular, more susceptible to perfectionist tendencies than previous generations?
Liza Feilner, MA, LPC & Jamie Manwaring, PhD: Unlike previous generations, millennials have to contend with social media, which provides an instant way to compare oneself to any achievement or physical attribute. Of course, those images are the “highlight reel” of one’s life, which means that even psychologically healthy adults have been shown to feel worse about themselves after engaging in social media.
Another issue millennials have to contend with is the perceived pressure to succeed in many areas in order to get into higher education. This higher education is also increasing in costs and, thus, there is also the external or internal pressure to succeed in a way that justifies this cost and matches the success of their peers’ highlight reels.
DM: Where is the line between “perfectionism” and simply trying one’s best? And why should it be important to define this?
LF & JM: The line is when one’s pursuit of perfectionism stops functioning for them and begins interfering with their lives and the values that are most important to them.
For example, in eating disorders, perfectionistically-pursuing fitness can damage relationships, interfere with hobbies that previously brought joy and damage health. It’s important to define this because “simply trying one’s best” is a good thing, but can easily slip into perfectionism that can be insatiable. Since perfection is an unrealistic goal, it can lead to more and more pressure and striving, and then more and more stress. When stress manifests as decreased coping, physical ailments such as tension headaches, racing heart, nausea or sleep disturbances demonstrate that the line has definitely been crossed.
Since perfection is an unrealistic goal, it can lead to more and more pressure and striving, and then more and more stress.
DM: There can be a lot of stereotypes surrounding perfectionism and eating disorders, in particular. What is the biggest “myth” that you deal with in mental health and would love to bring more awareness to?
LF & JM: Individuals may not recognize that they have an eating disorder due to the myth that having an eating disorder was caused by a singular cause, like the perfectionistic pursuit of thinness. This also prevents individuals from seeking support even once the eating disorder is diagnosed, due to the stigma around the myth that eating disorders are about vanity.
We know from vast research that eating disorders are about 80% due to genetics, and are multifactorial in their etiology.
DM: What are 3-5 key indicators to know if one’s own (or a loved one’s) sense of perfectionism is getting out of hand?
LF & JM:
(1.) Emotional distress when attempts are made to cut back on perfectionism.
(2.) Not having the time for relationships or hobbies outside of the perfectionistic pursuits.
(3.) More than expected distress when “perfect” goals aren’t met, and difficulty rebounding from these perceived failures (e.g., strong self-criticism, depression, increased drive in their perfectionism).
DM: What are 3-5 practical tips for scaling back the level of expectation someone holds themselves to?
LF & JM: Practice self-compassion by talking to yourself and treating yourself as you would a friend. With the support of others, practice “failing” by not being perfect, e.g., incorporating rest days for a fitness perfectionist. After doing this difficult practice, reward yourself! Talk to a professional to increase awareness of impact of perfectionism and accountability for challenging this.
DM: How does community play a role in perfectionism, and how can we start to build healthier relationships that foster encouragement over competition? Is this the best place to start?
LF & JM: Communities – whether that be your work community, school community or neighborhood – all have their own ethos. We can start in any community by recognizing when we are engaging in competitive versus collaborative conversation, and helping shift the conversations and, ultimately, the operations of these communities.
Encourage flexibility and acceptance in imperfections in yourself and others. Express your concerns to friends/loved ones you see getting trapped in perfectionistic patterns.
For more information on eating disorders or if you’re curious about the warning signs, please check out the Eating Recovery Center’s self-assessment quiz here.
Images via Diane Villadsen