“Links have been identified between perfectionism and mental illness”

7 September 2021

Alexander Rozental standing by the sea. He wears a yellow jacket and a black cap

Alexander Rozental at the Department of Psychology, hopes his book will help people who are perfectionists and feel bad about it.

Hello there Alexander Rozental, senior lecturer at the Department of Psychology and author of the self-help book for perfectionists, Bättre än perfekt [Better Than Perfect]. Why do we need such a book?

“It’s needed because so many people can recognise themselves in this problem but have never pondered whether it’s a habit or integral to our personality. There are also studies that link excessive perfectionism to mental illness.”

Isn’t striving to do as well as possible a good thing?
“If we set our sights so high that it places excessive demands on our time and commitment at the expense of other things, then it’s a problem. While it’s good to strive to do something as well as possible, when it comes at the expense of something else, one wonders what the long-term consequences might be.”

What do you mean when you talk about perfectionism?
“In day-to-day life, people talk about perfectionism as the quest for flawlessness or to do something as well as possible, but in psychology we think more in terms of the negative impact of feeling that one must do everything perfectly. Much of a perfectionist’s self-worth is tied up in being the best at something, such as being the best at their job or in the family, often at the expense of some other aspect of life.”

Is this a growing problem?
“Yes, there is an interesting study that followed several generations of students in the UK and USA, who were asked to answer questions on how they perceived the demand for perfectionism. It demonstrates that this [problem] has been on the increase since the 1980s. Many people believe that this may be due to labour market competition, tougher demands at universities and higher societal demands than they would have faced 40 years ago. We also have the constant comparison with others via social media that can contribute to more people feeling the demand for perfectionism.”

Does this differ between women and men?
“The majority of those seeking help are women. It may be that women identify the problem and it may be that there are differences in the demands placed on women and men respectively.”

Why is perfectionism an interesting subject for research?
“It belongs to the category of everyday problems, things that people can find difficult and that lead to problems but not to diagnosis. We are conducting ongoing research in the field. Last autumn, we invited people to try a self-help programme in which participants received help from our psychologists. We are currently collecting data to study how this works in the long term.”

Four tips for the perfectionists among you

  1. Have the courage to challenge yourself and your fears when you feel perfectionism kicking in. Do the opposite of what you would normally do.
  2. Train your ability to acknowledge when things are going well. Keep a diary of successes.
  3. Try to get to grips with your self-critical thoughts. How would you speak to a friend who is becoming self-critical? Shift perspective.
  4. Try to find a balance in life. Perform a thought experiment: who are you and what is your worth? Are your answers based on your studies or job, or on a range of different factors?