Before reading this article keep in mind that it accounts for “perfectionist tendencies” on a personality-trait basis and does not justify the behaviour for any personality disorders.
Humans often strive for perfection because it is a standard of excellence that is highly valued in our society. Unlike most things in our world, perfection is not measurable, meaning we hold ourselves accountable for failing to achieve a non-existent limit. The subjectivity of what one considers “perfect” to be leads to the continuous feeling of not being good enough, and ultimately a self-criticism that destroys one's mental health.
Now, if we all know that we are never going to reach “perfection” why do we still strive for it on a daily basis and beat ourselves over when it is not achieved?
As humans, we are inclined to improve who we are and find that we are constantly comparing ourselves to everyone around us. In other words, we want to be the best. This desire can be traced back to our animal ancestors and their constant need to be “the best'' due to a survival instinct. We can see a clear connection between an animal surviving and ruling over its pack and a human who is trying to survive society's constant criticism and simultaneously climb up the social hierarchy. Nevertheless, humans have evolved beyond our animal instincts a really long time ago, and our motivations are now influenced by a variety of social and cultural factors.
In the modern world, there is constant pressure to succeed, and although we are all tired of hearing it, social media is a main contributor to this problem. Even if perfectionist tendencies have been around ever since humanity began and is essentially simply a part of human nature, the constant need to display ourselves online skyrocketed societies' need to appear “perfect”. We are constantly being fed expectations of what we should look like and how we should act, comparing ourselves to what we see on screen which has sadly become the new norm.
In addition, the modern world has also become a place for extreme competition. Ever since we are born and start the early years of school, we are already being compared to those around us, be it on intellectual levels, artistic levels, communicative levels, etc… This list only serves to prove in how many ways we are constantly being judged even from such a young age. Subsequently, we grow up and this cycle continues. You do your best in school so you can be picked for being the “better option” amongst thousands of others when applying for college, then for a job. No wonder students of all ages are hyper-focused on being “perfect ''; it is truly (not in all cases, but in most) a measure of the value you hold in society. Now, don't get it wrong, competition is not a completely negative aspect of our world, it often leads to growth and development, but it can quickly get out of hand and that's when the problem really starts.
The globalisation and technological advancements of our modern world have also played a huge part in the appeal for perfection. The world as a whole is looking for ways to be better and innovate in all areas possible. For that, we need people, the best of the best to take on leading roles for a greater future. Ultimately, we are competing with people from all over the world, and what is the most evident way to stand out? Being perfect.
These three justifications for our perfectionist tendencies are just the bottom line, and this issue goes much further beyond. It is essentially a by-product of our brain's reward system which releases feel-good chemicals whenever we accomplish a goal, and as we are humans, we set our goals to an unreasonable level of excellence. Our brain subconsciously motivates us to achieve perfection, but how do we achieve something that technically does not exist?
This is the entire problem with the perfectionist culture that society has created. The failure to achieve something that is unachievable leads to anxiety, stress, self-criticism, procrastination, and many other terrible effects on one's mental health.
Let's imagine that “perfect” was indeed measurable and many hard-working people are able to reach this desirable pinnacle. Then, a new expectation for humanity will be created. Humans will try to push themselves beyond, trying to be better than those who would then be considered “perfect”. subsequently, our definition of “perfection” will change and exceed the pinnacle of excellence that was previously reached. Humanity itself is hardly ever satisfied, we always want more.
In our society, there is a demand to grow out of our perfectionist culture and to encourage people to strive for improvement and progress rather than perfection and flawlessness. To live a better life without the constant disappointment of not achieving what we want, we need to start setting realistic goals and focus more on the journey of self-development rather than the quality of the final product.