For much of my life, I’ve operated with a deeply ingrained sense that anything I share with the world must be perfect..."Bella Priestman-Bennett

We tend to think of a perfectionist as someone who holds themselves to impossibly high standards. This kind of perfectionism, I suspect, plagues many Cambridge students. It’s something that I’ve laughed off about myself countless times.

But perfection has a dark side. Perfectionism – the visceral, internalised kind - can not only lead us to push aside our negative feelings, allowing them to fester, but it can also pose as a real barrier to emotional vulnerability and even to our willingness to share with the world what we feel to be important.

It was only when a friend, with characteristic bluntness, expressed her frustration at my reluctance to ‘talk about feelings’ during one of many long lockdown walks, that I realised just how debilitating perfectionism can be.

“For much of my life, I’ve operated with a deeply ingrained sense that anything I share with the world must be perfect.”

For much of my life, I’ve operated with a deeply ingrained sense that anything I share with the world must be perfect. This wasn’t just holding me back from showing my friends and family the result of my latest battle with oil paints, but it was a sense that was so deep-rooted that it underpinned my reluctance to delve into difficult and complicated emotions with those closest to me.

A couple of months ago, when my Dad passed away, my seeming inability to open up became more frustrating than ever. I felt a sense that I had to fully understand my emotions, my thoughts, and my grief before I shared them with others. This kind of perfectionism is, I’m aware, entirely irrational: I am not blind to the illogicity of the thought process, and yet it’s so much a part of my thinking that it’s difficult to shift.

My preoccupation with my inability to arrange my feelings ‘properly’ and my frustration at not being able to articulate them coherently makes little objective sense. ‘Perfection’ is entirely incongruous in this context because emotions, by nature, cannot be ‘perfect’. They’re messy, confusing and often contradictory. Yet, despite myself, the sense that my emotional world should be arranged into a tidy, accessible, digestible narrative has consistently held me back from expressing myself openly.

I’ve long been aware of my perfectionist attitude towards my studies (even if it has waned over the course of my degree as the relentlessness of the weekly essays has taken its toll). In this context, it’s been easy to dismiss my perfectionism as benign, even motivating. However, it was a sobering realisation that this perfectionism permeated my emotional world too, holding me back from letting people in and sharing my experiences.

"Perfectionism is endemic amongst our generation and is having devastating effects on our mental health."Bella Priestman-Bennett

The effects of perfectionism on the individual go beyond my own experience of clamming up when asked to talk about feelings. Perfectionism is endemic amongst our generation and is having devastating effects on our mental health. A study published by Thomas Curran and Andrew P Hill in 2017 found the majority of respondents were experiencing “multidimensional perfectionism”. The study linked this with the increase in eating disorders, anxiety and depression amongst people in their twenties. Far from benign, perfectionism is making us ill.

As if this weren’t enough, perfectionism can have calamitous consequences for society more widely. After all, a fear that what we have to say might not be ‘good enough’ has the potential to breed silence on matters that require us to be vocal. In the context of Black Lives Matter, perfectionism has the worrying capacity to keep potential allies from using their position to speak out in support of the movement. Having spoken to a few friends recently, a fear that they may fail to articulate their support properly, or that they might inadvertently get something wrong, has led them to think twice before sharing a post on social media. This is not to say that social media wouldn’t, at times, benefit from a bit more circumspection and reflection, but it is dangerous when we allow our inner perfectionist to debilitate us completely, rendering us tongue-tied and speechless. During an urgent fight against systemic racism, speaking up is more important and more necessary than ever. Perfectionist-induced silence equates to complacency. How can we expect change if a fear that our contribution is not ‘perfect’ prevents us from being vocal?


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Perfectionism can cause us to remain silent. For the individual, this can have terrible consequences. For society, it can keep those with the will to fight for positive social change from speaking up, crippled by their own internal fear that their voice is not ‘enough’. In the state that the world is in at the moment, silence is not an option. Now, more than ever, is the time to take the threat of perfectionism seriously.

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