WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: The Perfection Trap by Thomas Curran

This just released book is a fascinating exploration of perfectionism – what it is, where it comes from, it’s impact, and how we can escape from it.

Curran explains that perfectionism is much more than high standards and a tendency towards hard work. It’s an entire worldview – a way of existing that defines how we perceive ourselves and interpret the things other people do and say. It’s a problematic relationship with ourselves, in which we demand too much or are overly self-critical, and it’s also a problematic relationship with other people, in which we believe that those around us demand perfection and that we demand perfection from other people too. Curran shows that perfectionism is rooted in deficit thinking and social comparison, as well as shame and rumination.

Curran calls these the three faces pf perfectionism: self-directed, socially imposed, and other-directed. We may have different levels of each of those, and these can be mapped using a multidimensional model.

Curran demonstrates that while some perfectionists do succeed, they are often the exception to the rule. Perfectionism is not a pre-requisite for success, you can have high standards and work hard without the insecurity.

Perfectionism actually tends to work against us. It creates extreme psychological stress and reduces our capacity to deal with that. Curran describes perfectionism as the opposite of resilience, arguing that ‘healthy perfectionism is an oxymoron’. He shows that, in addition to the negative impact on a person’s mental health, perfectionism has a negative impact on performance because perfectionists under stress tend to withhold subsequent effort and procrastination. He summarises the problem with perfectionism in this way:

“First, perfectionists indeed work hard, but it’s far too hard, and they’re extremely inefficient in where it’s allocated, making them highly susceptible to exhaustion and burnout. And second, although hard work is indeed a signature of the perfectionist, that doesn’t mean they’re always working. When the going gets tough, they tend to avoid the things that need doing until the passage of time forces them into action. Together, these two behaviours – inefficient overwork and avoidance – conspire to create a success paradox that makes perfectionists no more likely to succeed.:

I found particularly interesting the content about socially imposed perfectionism, and its links to other phenomenon such as imposter syndrome. While Curran suggests that perfectionism is about 40% genetic, he says that experiences also matter a lot, and the most significant problem is culture.

Curran demonstrates how much modern society promotes and lionises perfectionism, which makes it challenging to escape. Our market systems, boosted by social media, create a “flawless hologram” of the good life which “constitutes perfectionism’s most powerful driving force: an obsession with boundless growth and unrelenting moreness at any cost”.

Curran argues that we should think about failure as a normal and natural part of our mortal existence. We don’t even need to pressure ourselves to learn from our failures. Curran criticises the growth mindset, which he says purports to celebrate failure when in actual fact it does completely the opposite, requiring us to make something positive from it, to negate it. He also acknowledges that we need to take care not to be trapped in the opposite prison – a cage of victimhood.

Curran’s advice is that it’s perfectly possible to embrace our imperfect minds and bodies without needing to constantly grow, update or improve them. And that we can learn that those minds and bodies can go in many different directions, at many different speeds.

This book is essential reading for anyone who battles with their inner perfectionist, and also for people who work with people facing the challenges of their perfectionism.

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