Perfectionism: Setting Myself up for Failure

How setting myself unrealistic goals has hindered progress.

My New Year ‘Do More’ List 2016

It happens every January: After the hedonistic Christmas period has left me feeling deflated emotionally, and inflated physically, I sit down to write my New Year’s resolutions, or as I call it the “Do More” list. More out of a misplaced sense of guilt, (and a dash of self-loathing) I dissect my shortcomings from the last year, creating a lengthy scroll of self-serving commandments to follow for the next. The result? Every year my resolution falters, or at least it appears to.

I am not the only one caught in this cycle. Every year millions of people join in the attempted amelioration process, and the worst statistics show that only 8% adhere to their resolutions. So why are we so bad at sticking to them? From a psychological perspective it appears that our inability to manage our expectations is to blame. We set ourselves up for perennial failure, leading to what is known as a false hope syndrome, doomed to repeat our mistakes eternally. Instead of focusing on one or two achievable goals (see above photo) we pen a veritable self-help book and are subsequently bewildered by our inability to follow through.

The implications of this systemic failure can be extremely damaging, especially if like me, you have a perfectionism complex coupled with a penchant for internal self-flagellation. Multi-dimensional perfectionism, or perfectionism driven by unrealistic expectations, is on the rise in young people, and it’s severely impacting our mental health. Up until recently I thought of perfectionism as a dichotomy; on one hand it offers unyielding determination, the other hypercritical self-evaluation (yin and yang, if you will). But with recent studies linking perfectionism with anxiety, depression and suicide I find myself questioning it’s inherent pernicious nature and the role it has played in my life.

Perfectionism is not synonymous with success, despite that very idea pervading almost every part of modern life, starting in the schooling system and later progressing into the workplace. Contrary to the tabloid press who are all too quick to label millennials as “snowflakes”, young people are experiencing an increased pressure to succeed more than ever, and it’s easy to understand why; rising debt, due partly to the increase in university fees; stagnated wages, leading to millennials being the first ever generation to earn less than their parents; Facebook and Instagram, which create an adversarial atmosphere of perpetual happiness and hubristic tendencies. Our youth obsessed culture expects us to be successful entrepreneurs before our thirtieth birthday, but in reality it takes years to hone the necessary skills and experience, (not to mention that the idea of “success” is so deeply ingrained in the neo-liberal agenda that it is impossible to define success in the modern world without relating it to income).

Humans also have a tendency to remember negative emotions, events and feelings more strongly than positive ones, and looking back retrospectively over the last six months it is clear to see that this negativity bias has glossed over my achievements and highlighted my failures. The fact that I have begun teaching myself piano, completed a three-month alcohol-free challenge and started this blog, (all on my ‘do more’ list) matter not when my brain is evolutionarily wired to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. To overcome this requires awareness of negative thoughts appearing, and (shocker) introducing positive ones, or to put it simply: being kind to yourself. However mindfulness is as skill that requires practice just like any other, and although it sounds simple in theory when put into practice old habits resurface all too quickly, (just look at those pesky New Year’s resolutions).

A recent study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that self-affirmation, the process of re-affirming your values, can help to reduce stress. In light of this illuminating information, from this time forward my only resolution is to rid myself of the perfectionism and unrealistic expectations that have plagued me and concentrate more on what I have to offer the world. And if from time to time I falter, I’ll try not to be too hard on myself.

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