There is no doubt that the continued spread of COVID-19 has affected the mental health of many Canadians, but new analysis focuses on one group in particular: perfectionists.
“I believe the current pandemic, as a global health crisis, will make things worse for perfectionists and add to their perfectionism,” Gordon Flett, a professor of psychology at York University, told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.
“Recent evidence suggests that perfectionism is becoming a very common and growing problem – we are talking about a factor that affects millions of people, based on what we have seen. “
Flett is the co-author of an article in the Journal of Concurrent Disorders that examines how our experiences with the “global health crisis exacerbate the already high levels of stress and distress and the complex psychological problems faced by vulnerable perfectionists.”
At the root of this fight is a lack of control, said Flett. Our daily routines were thrown out the window due to self-isolation and physical remoteness. He stressed that this, as well as the fact that there is great uncertainty surrounding the course of the virus, is particularly disconcerting for perfectionists, who are constantly looking for certainty and comfort.
“For perfectionists … their identity is based on success, but now we are in a situation where the goal should be to survive and get by,” said Flett. “The usual needs that exist are therefore not really taken into account.”
In an attempt to regain control, perfectionists will often adopt behaviors that worsen their condition, usually in the form of overcompensation.
Toronto psychologist Dr. Mariyam Ahmed explained that with more people staying at home, for example, perfectionists feel more pressure to make the most of what they can now consider “time” free ”, going beyond the accomplishment of daily tasks.
“If the work has been reduced and [people are] spending more time at home, they may feel the need to prepare elaborate meals for the family or to make sure the house is tidy up, “Ahmed told CTVNews.ca on telephone on Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter what they’re trying to get into … they want to be the best at it. “
The underlying motivation, Flett said, is the fear and anxiety of not being good enough or “perfect”. This pressure could be internal or come from those around them.
“The constant effort at impossible levels … is motivated by the need to avoid the fear of failure or the fear of embarrassment,” said the professor. “So you keep peddling, working, and striving so that the bad things you anticipate don’t actually happen. “
This fear, he said, is compounded by the anxiety that already exists around the current pandemic. So not only will those with existing perfectionist tendencies suffer, but those with milder forms will likely see their conditions worsen.
PERFECTIONIST STUDENTS FIGHT TO FACE
Evidence suggests that perfectionism is a pervasive problem around the world, especially among children and adolescents in school.
A 2015 study involving more than 900 high school students in Australia reported that around 30% of these students had some form of dysfunctional perfectionism. A more recent study of adolescents in Norway found that 38% of students aged 13-14 also had dysfunctional perfectionism.
It has also been reported that millennials today are more likely to be perfectionists than previous generations. A study published last year traced the rise of perfectionism between 1990 and 2015 among participants around the world. It involved 77 studies and nearly 25,000 people aged 15 to 49.
Flett insists that student anxiety will be heightened by the pandemic and lead to increased feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. He explained that this will result in excessive searches for information online as well as more frequent social comparison with others.
“I fear they will spend a lot of time ruminating and thinking about why they are not where they should be in terms of their overall success and their goals, but totally frustrated and blocked because of the situation, ”says Flett.
PERFECTIONISM IN THE FIRST LINE
Those working in health care are also subject to increased perfectionist tendencies due to the pandemic. As the professor from York University has described, the field is one where perfectionism is highly sought after, whether in terms of the competition involved in entering medical school or the fact that for nurses and doctors, their job involves saving lives. In addition to this already existing stress, comes additional anxiety from an overwhelming number of patients and for many, a shortage of personal protective equipment.
“What happens, unfortunately, for many of these people is that they always seem to find a way to blame themselves,” said Flett. “They will think,” I did not save this person but I should have been able to. “
” [In these situations], there is a great sense of ineffectiveness, which really makes it much more personal and further adds to the feeling of anxiety and demoralization. “
Similar sentiments were shared by the main medical expert on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci. In a 2005 interview with NPR, the doctor talked about his own perfectionist tendencies while working as a doctor and scientist specializing in infectious diseases.
Not only did Fauci admit to being a perfectionist, but he described having “low-grade feelings of restless anxiety and a persistent feeling of inadequacy”, something he said kept him “humble” .
According to Flett, this is the perfect example of how perfectionism works.
“Even though he is considered the leading American expert – what would call him the world’s foremost expert – on how to handle these things, he still has a nagging anxiety about being insufficient,” said Flett. “This is the perfectionist thing; at the heart of what’s going on with them is this feeling of insecurity and inferiority, so they always need to prove themselves. “
LOOKING FOR HELP
In addition to giving the best of themselves, perfectionists also don’t want to be seen as weak, said Flett. This often prevents them from seeking help when they need it.
Flett encourages perfectionists to practice mindfulness and to be aware that the struggles they face are normal.
“They need to focus on their compassion and realize that others often feel the same way and that they are far from alone,” he said.
He also recommends trying to relax through positive forms of distraction. Instead of obsessively checking for 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.
“This keeps us from being extremely forward-looking, especially at this time,” said Ahmed. “It allows you to focus more on the ability to commit to the task at hand, as opposed to” what ifs “, which would fuel anxiety more.”
According to Flett, when perfectionists fail, they tend to view it as the result of a personal flaw or defect in themselves. This kind of thinking, he said, must stop.
” [Perfectionists] really need to start accepting the fact that no one is perfect [and] that mistakes and failures are learning opportunities, “said Flett. “It’s a chance to grow and develop, but not to judge yourself while you do it. “