There is no doubt the ongoing spread of COVID-19 has taken a toll on the mental health of many Canadians, but a new analysis looks at one group in particular: perfectionists.
“I believe that the current pandemic, as a global health crisis, is going to make things much worse for perfectionists and add to their perfectionism,” Gordon Flett, a psychology professor at York University, told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Wednesday.
“Recent evidence suggests that perfectionism is becoming a very pervasive and growing problem – we’re talking about a factor that’s impacting millions of people, based on what we’ve been seeing.”
Flett is the co-author of an article published in the Journal of Concurrent Disorders that examines how our experiences of the “global health crisis are exacerbating the already high levels of stress and distress and complex psychological problems found among vulnerable perfectionists.”
At the root of this struggle is a lack of control, said Flett. Our daily routines have been thrown out the window due to self-isolation and physical distancing. He pointed out that this, along with the fact that much uncertainty surrounds the course of the virus, is especially disconcerting for perfectionists, who are constantly in search of certainty and reassurance.
“For perfectionists…their identity is based around achievement, but now we’re in a situation where the goal should be survival and getting by,” said Flett. “So the usual needs that are there are not really being addressed.”
In an attempt to regain control, perfectionists will often engage in behaviours that worsen their condition, usually in the form of overcompensation.
Dr. Mariyam Ahmed, a Toronto psychologist, explained that with more people staying home, for example, perfectionists feel a greater pressure to make the most out of what they may now consider “free time,” going above and beyond in completing everyday tasks.
“If work has been cut down and [people are] spending more time at home, they might feel the need to make elaborate meals for the family or make sure the house is super tidy,” Ahmed told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday over the phone. “No matter what they’re trying to engage in… they want to be the best at it.”
The underlying motivation for this, explained Flett, is fear and anxiety over not being good enough or “perfect.” This pressure could be internal or stem from those around them.
“The constant striving at impossible levels … is driven by a need to avoid the fear of failure or the fear of embarrassment,” said the professor. “So you keep peddling and working and striving so that the bad things you were anticipating don’t actually happen.”
This fear, he explained, is compounded by the anxiety that already exists surrounding the current pandemic. So not only are those with existing perfectionist tendencies going to suffer, but those with milder forms will likely see their conditions worsen.
PERFECTIONIST STUDENTS STRUGGLING TO COPE
Evidence suggests perfectionism is a pervasive problem across the world, especially among children and adolescents in school.
A study published in 2015 involving more than 900 high school students in Australia reported that about 30 per cent of those students had some form of dysfunctional perfectionism. A more recent study looking at adolescents in Norway discovered that 38 per cent of students between the ages of 13 and 14 also had dysfunctional perfectionism.
It was also reported that millennials today are more likely to be perfectionists than previous generations. A study published last year tracked the rise of perfectionism between 1990 and 2015 among participants from around the world. It involved 77 studies and almost 25,000 people ranging from 15 to 49 years of age.
Flett insists that anxiety among students will be amplified by the pandemic and result in increased feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. He explained this will manifest in excessive searches for information online as well as more frequent social comparison with others.
“I’m concerned that they’re going to spend a lot of time ruminating and brooding about why they’re not where they should be in terms of their overall accomplishment and their goals, yet totally frustrated and blocked because of the situation,” said Flett.
PERFECTIONISM ON THE FRONTLINE
Those working in health care are also prone to increased perfectionist tendencies due to the pandemic. As described by the York University professor, the field is one where perfectionism is very much called for, whether looking at the competition involved in getting into medical school or the fact that for nurses and doctors, their jobs involve saving lives. In addition to this stress that already exists comes additional anxiety due to an overwhelming number of patients and for many, a shortage of personal protective equipment.
“What happens, unfortunately, for a lot of these people is they always seem to find a way to blame themselves,” said Flett. “They’ll think, ‘I didn’t save that person but I should have been able to.’
“[In these situations], there’s a great sense of inefficacy, which really makes it much more personal and further adds to the sense of anxiety and demoralization.”
Similar sentiments were shared by the top medical expert on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci. In a 2005 interview with NPR, the doctor spoke of his own perfectionist tendencies while working as a physician and scientist specializing in infectious diseases.
Not only did Fauci admit to being a perfectionist, but he described having “sobering feelings of low-grade anxiety and a nagging sense of inadequacy,” something he said kept him “humble.”
According to Flett, this is the perfect example of how perfectionism works.
“Even though he is regarded as the leading United States expert — which would put him up in terms of the leading world expert — on how to handle these things, he still has nagging anxiety in the sense of inadequacy,” said Flett. “That’s the thing about perfectionists; at the core of what’s going on with them is that sense of insecurity and inferiority, so they always need to prove themselves.”
In addition to performing at their best, perfectionists also do not want to be perceived as weak, explained Flett. This often keeps them from seeking out help when they need it.
Flett encourages perfectionists to practice mindfulness and be aware of the fact that the struggles they face are normal.
“They need to focus on being self-compassionate and realizing that other people are often feeling the same way, and that they’re far from alone,” he said.
He also recommends trying to relax through positive forms of distraction. Instead of obsessively Googling the latest updates on COVID-19, try listening to podcasts and music, watching TV shows, or connecting with family and friends.
Ahmed says the key is to focus on the present moment.
“It stops us from being extremely future-oriented, especially right now,” said Ahmed. “It gets you to focus more on being able to engage in the task at hand as opposed to the ‘what ifs,’ which would fuel the anxiety further.”
According to Flett, when perfectionists experience failure, they tend to view it as the result of a personal flaw or defect within them. This kind of thinking, he said, has to stop.
“[Perfectionists] really need to start accepting the fact that nobody is perfect [and] that mistakes and failures are learning opportunities,” said Flett. “It’s a chance to grow and develop but not judge yourself while you’re doing it.”