Our quest for perfection is making us all miserable

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The Independent Online
MODERN Britons are making themselves miserable by striving for perfection. New research suggests that nearly one in five people has developed extreme "perfectionist" traits, becom- ing susceptible to depression and frustration.

The findings are based on an ongoing 16-year long study by clinical psychologists from the University of York. They have followed more than 2,000 college students over the period to establish their personality traits, the impact on their health and how they deal with stress.

Psychologists believe increasing prosperity in society and the promotion of flawless faces, beautiful bodies and stylish houses has increased people's desire to attain their perception of perfection. This is unwittingly compounded by over-anxious parents constantly trying to motivate their children to do better.

"There is more pressure on people to live up to some sort of image today than there was in the past," said Dr Derek Roger, director of the stress research unit and lecturer in psychology at York University, who runs the study. "The problem is that people try to model themselves on something external and are not content with how they are."

According to Dr Roger, perfectionism is defined not simply as having high standards or working hard, but having expectations that are unrealistic and becoming anxious and frustrated when they are not met.

The York researchers found that 18 per cent of those questioned had above average levels of perfectionist traits. "Perfectionists feel threatened. They spend a great deal of time imposing standards on themselves which may be difficult to achieve, and because of the emotional upset it can lead to ill-health," he said.

But perfectionism doesn't have to be a negative thing, according to Neil Crawford, a psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic in London. "There are people who are perfectionists and are perfectly healthy, indeed, it is an asset in terms of their attention to detail and their drive for success," he said

"However there is also a darker side to perfectionism, as some people find it impossible to delegate, they must take control of every situation personally. You can see this in bosses who are intolerant of any subordinate failure. This kind of perfectionism betrays a deep sense of impotence and leads to frustration and anger. In failing to control their uncertain emotions, they over-compensate and attempt to control the world around themselves."

Perfectionism can cause frustration, disappointment and anger and in extreme cases can cause or contribute to serious complaints such as depression, anorexia and bulimia. Previous research has shown that perfectionism is one of the strongest risk factors for developing an eating disorder.

Rory Bremner, the impressionist and comedian, who has suffered from eating disorders in the past, is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. "I do feed off stress and the worst thing about me is that I'm a perfectionist. Once I've performed a sketch, I'm never happy with it," he said.

Other self-proclaimed perfectionists include Gianluca Vialli, player- manager of Chelsea, actress Kate Winslet, stage hypnotist Paul McKenna, comedian Lenny Henry and singer Heather Small.

Research shows that perfectionists share similar characteristics. They are neat and well organised. They also appear to be very competent and confident but inwardly feel they are never good enough.

"The question with perfectionism is really whether it interferes with an individual's ability to function in society," said Jon Fraise, a chartered clinical psychologist with Wakefield and Pontefract Community Health NHS Trust. "A preoccupation with cleanliness might well be tolerated in a surgeon, whereas it would be seen as a handicap in the life of a road sweeper," he said.

Simon Carson, a 23-year-old nurse, believes that his life has been taken over by his quest for perfection. He sets himself sky-high targets at work and makes sure he never has a hair out of place. But Mr Carson has a history of broken relationships as no girlfriends have lived up to his demanding standards.

He sets aside three hours a day for a meticulous hygiene routine and feels physically sick at the prospect of going without a wash. He keeps his house spotless and polishes his car twice a week.

Mr Carson thinks the military precision of his father, a retired regimental sergeant major, drove his desire to be perfect. "I was constantly under pressure to be neat and tidy so I reflected well on dad. It was a case of 'like father like son'. Everything has got to be in its place and organised. I think people at work get very annoyed because I am always cleaning and tidying around myself. I find it difficult to be laid back about anything."

Additional reporting by Greg Stekelman

'I'm a perfectionist. I'm never completely satisfied. I always want to go on and improve my life, and part of my life is my job' GIANLUCA VIALLI, FOOTBALLER

'I always had incredible respect for him. He would be adamant and I always wanted to get it right because I am a perfectionist, too' KATE WINSLET ON JAMES CAMERON

'I am a control freak. I fear rejection both personal and professional, but have learned to believe that things are meant to be' PAUL McKENNA, HYPNOTIST

'I want the show to be great, a complete celebration, and I put pressure on myself to give my best' HEATHER SMALL, LEAD SINGER OF M PEOPLE