In one of my earliest memories, I’m drawing. I don’t remember what the picture is supposed to be, but I remember the mistake. My marker slips, an unintentional line appears and my lip trembles. The picture has long since disappeared. But that feeling of deep frustration, even shame, stays with me.
More often than I’d like to admit, something seemingly inconsequential will cause the same feeling to rear its head again. Something as small as accidentally squashing the panettone I was bringing my boyfriend’s family for Christmas can tumble around in my mind for several days, accompanied by occasional voices like “How stupid!” and “You should have known better”. Falling short of a bigger goal, even when I know achieving it would be near-impossible, can temporarily flatten me. When an agent told me that she knew I was going to write a book someday but that the particular idea I’d pitched her didn’t suit the market, I felt deflated in a gut-punching way that went beyond disappointment. The negative drowned out the positive. “You’re never going to write a book,” my internal voice said. “You’re not good enough.” That voice didn’t care that this directly contradicted what the agent actually said.
That’s the thing about perfectionism. It takes no prisoners.
If I’ve struggled with perfectionism, I’m far from alone. The tendency starts young – and it’s becoming more common. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill’s recent meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016, the first study to compare perfectionism across generations, found significant increases among more recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada. In other words, the average college student last year was much more likely to have perfectionistic tendencies than a student in the 1990s or early 2000s.