erfectionism is a trait we associate with success, drive and getting ahead in life. But there is a dark side to striving to be perfect, and research suggests it could be on the rise among young people. A 2018 study found that young people in the UK, US and Canada reported substantially higher rates of perfectionism, or having exceptionally high standards for themselves, along with being overly self-critical, compared with previous generations at the same time in their lives.
Someone who knows all too well the perils of striving towards the impossibility of being perfect is author and entrepreneur Poppy Jamie. In her mid-twenties, TV presenter Jamie was living the dream and running a growing accessories brand in LA with her best friend, model and actress Suki Waterhouse. Having also just founded her own wellness company and in the midst of developing mindfulness app Happy Not Perfect, she suffered a breakdown which left her hospitalised and unable to work for eight months.
Chronic stress, anxiety and exhaustion — a result of being a workaholic and persistently setting herself unattainable goals across all aspects of her life — left her suffering from burnout, which began to manifest itself in physical symptoms. “My digestion basically stopped, my tummy was so bloated that I looked like I was four months pregnant,” she says. After research and therapy, she came to realise her intrinsic perfectionism or, as she puts it, the belief that “if you were just better, life would be easier and you’d be happier”, was at the root of the problem.
“You can be a functional perfectionist for a long time before it tips over and becomes extremely toxic,” she says. “I realised I had begun to see happiness and being perfect as the same thing. I would instinctively think to myself, ‘If I get the best grades or produce the best piece of work, then I’ll be happy.’
“We believe we can get to this place of no problems or struggle, where everything is perfect, but as humans we are innately imperfect and it becomes totally exhausting because the higher the bar you set, the greater the gap between reality and expectation, and so much self-hate, self-disgust and self-criticism can fill that gap.” Jamie was left with a big dose of what she terms “duck syndrome”. “I felt pressure to look groomed, to look like I’m floating along the water with everything under control, setting up two companies and having a social life at the same time, but underneath I was paddling for dear life, just trying to stay afloat, exhausted and ready to drown at any moment.”
Social media perpetuates perfectionism. “The level of projection we see on Instagram is so extreme that if you’re feeling a bit down it’s pretty much impossible not to be triggered when you see your friend has got engaged, someone’s got a promotion and another is having a baby,” Jamie says. “We have such a herd mentality. Up to the age of 18 we all go through the same things, so we’re conditioned to believe we should all do things at the same time. Then suddenly everyone’s life becomes a game of snakes of ladders and that can be quite confusing for our minds to rationalise. We only see such a pinprick of information from one social media post and yet our minds make a story out of that.”
In her quest to overcome perfectionism, Jamie has spent the past five years seeking help from mental health experts, life coaches and mentors, which in turn lent itself as research for her new book in which she has developed a toolkit for a “flexible thinking” approach to life. She calls it “the flex”. “The flex is about turning stiff thoughts into flexible ones. It’s essentially a systems upgrade that fixes the bugs of self-blame, anxiety, perfectionism, the disease to please, and avoidance,” Jamie writes.
There are four pillars of the Flex method: connection, curiosity, choice and commitment. Connection is about acknowledging, rather than blocking feelings. “It could be simply saying ‘today my mind feels a bit anxious’. With that I’m reminding myself that emotions are only temporary and I’m labelling that emotion and switching on the rational side of the brain. It’s very powerful to label, release and accept.”
Curiosity, Jamie says, is “the most powerful step”. It’s all about the power of pause and rewiring one’s brain not to listen to what our “bitchy inner critic” is telling us. “When we react, there is no room for curiosity, we jump to conclusions, assume we know what people meant from that cryptic message. Just like blind spots in the car, we’ve got to give ourselves that same mentality in life. When we accept we all have blind spots and say actually we’re going to wait for more information, that can be really powerful.”
Choice is about self-compassion. “Life often doesn’t give us the choice to be happy, but we can choose to be kind to ourselves.” Finally, commitment is about consistency. “We stretch and stretch, and after months of struggle, we can finally touch our toes,” Jamie writes, “but unless we keep stretching, we’ll get stiff again.”
The Happy Not Perfect philosophy isn’t about “toxic positivity,” Jamie adds. “We are moving into a culture of wanting to avoid anything that’s painful, which really worries me. I wouldn’t take away any painful episodes in my life as I’ve grown so much all of from them. Psychological flexibility is realising each emotion is there for a reason.”
The Four-Step Flex Method
If you’re at work and find yourself triggered by an email, for example, or wake up and notice an anxious thought, let that be a signal to move. Take a 20 minute jog, have a five minute dance to your favourite song or do 10 jumping jacks to raise vibrations.
Remember to pause and question your thoughts. Ask yourself, can I be 100 per cent certain that this person doesn’t like me? How does this thought make me feel? Who would I be without this thought? Through doing this we realise that our suffering starts within our thoughts.
Ask yourself, how would I advise a friend experiencing what I am now? When thinking about ourselves, we activate the emotional side of the brain. Try to practise using the third-party friend voice in aspects of life you may be struggling with. This allows you to tap into your own wisdom sources.
New neural pathways aren’t created overnight. Introduce small practices into your daily routine to maintain your flexible approach to life. This could be simply writing down a worry you have on your phone. It can help to clear the mind and rationalise thoughts.
Happy Not Perfect: Upgrade Your Mind, Challenge Your Thoughts and Free Yourself From Anxiety by Poppy Jamie is available now (Yellow Kite, £16.99)