TK Behind the glossy exterior social perfectionists sculpt, there’s deep pain.

You meticulously curate your social media, it’s verging on obsessive, there is a need not just to be liked, but to be brilliant and impressive. ‘Good’ isn’t good enough, and when the numbers of likes aren’t as high as expected, you somehow feel lonely and there’s shame. You know that plenty of people did like what you shared and what does it matter if they didn’t? Why is there that not good enough feeling? If this sounds familiar then you may be caught in a trap of social perfectionism.

Social perfectionism isn’t just a need for attention of any variety, good or bad. There’s painful feelings of rejection and failure around not being perceived well. Needing to be the funniest, coolest, most interesting, charismatic, perfect and admired by many – might look like signs of self-absorption, if not narcissism. But lurking beneath it all is a high level of anxiety alongside an insuperable fear of failure – which you’ll know very well if you are a social perfectionist. 

Social perfectionism is on the rise, having increased dramatically in the past 25 years. Millennials face the highest levels of perfectionism across the generations; an increase that has risen since the 1990s. The heavily curated galleries of social media, airbrushed images and influencers with cities worth of followers – symptomatic clues of a social strain of perfectionism. Social media has presented the possibility that anyone can be a star or ‘insta-famous’. Theres also the reach and permanance of content. A post can reach thousands of people in minutes residing somewhere online forever. For social perfectionists, the online world is one where validation lies in numbers, heart shapes and upward thumbs. The more the better.  

If you are a social perfectionist, social situations carry huge interpersonal weight: they can either elevate or denigrate you and other people’s approval is everything. Suma Chandi a clinical psychologist who works with perfectionism highlights how social perfectionists aim to ensure that “nothing about them can be judged, whether its appearance or quality of conversation”. As humans, we are social creatures, it makes sense that we experience wanting to belong and be accepted. For social animals, not being accepted could mean being cast out of the group. Imagine being forced to fend for yourself, what in nature would most likely lead to an untimely death. But for social perfectionists it goes far beyond merely belonging, there’s a need to be the BEST, it’s ‘all-or-nothing’. This type of perfectionism is maladaptive causing more harm than good.  

As a therapist, I’ve noticed how people’s sense of self becomes intertwined with external validation: emotions rely on the gaze of others, if you are online then that gaze is faceless. For one client I worked with, her extreme highs and lows coincided with acquiring and losing followers on Instagram. Even when she had gained an enviable mass of followers, there was a feeling that her standing could topple in an instant. The wrong post, not posting enough, too much, posts and stories being “not quite right”… her day-to-day life was consumed by relentless striving to secure the approval of others. Every online action manoeuvred like a commercial enterprise, it was time-consuming. She wasn’t using social media for monetary value yet appearances meant everything. I often see how people push themselves, introverts will adopt a skin of extroversion, honing social scripts and sacrificing the side of themselves that would rather be somewhere more private, less exposing, less ‘loud’. It’s an exhausting facade. 

Behind the glossy exterior which social perfectionist expertly sculpt, there’s deep pain. In my work, I see another side of social perfectionism, a side that is defiantly guarded from others. A side where shame, intense rejection and unbearable self-depreciation lurk.  

Social perfectionists have constant feelings of being a failure and not good enough. Often these beliefs are deep and rooted in difficult childhood experiences: emotionally distant, abusive parents, bullying at school and constant criticism are some of the causal factors that can lead to reliance on the approval of others. If you are a social perfectionist you most likely measure your sense of self worth by how others perceive your social standing. When you fall short of your standards, self-criticism and berating ensue. There’s an implicit belief of, “your only as good as your last achievement”. Anything that falls short is simply not good enough.

There’s high levels of shame. Brené Brown calls shame ‘the birthplace of perfectionism’. Because shame is such a painful and unpleasant emotion, social perfectionists deflect their shame as a compensatory strategy,  it acts as a sort of shield. By trying to be perfect you don’t have to feel shame. Once you’re unable to meet your unrealistic standards, you are flooded with shame-which inevitably happens, as your standards were so unrealistic. This will lead to low-self esteem, procrastination and either giving up or setting even higher unrealistic goals. A vicious cycle is fuelled. 

Perfectionists struggle to trust others:  Because of the need to be perfect, social perfectionists experience less of the moments of vulnerability and realness that form the foundations of trust. If you are a social perfectionist you most likely have fortified walls around yourself by presenting a side you believe pleases others. This restricts opportunities for learning and for people to see your realness beyond a performance-like facade. As humans we reflect one another, you are more likely to experience other people’s superficial sides if that’s what you’re putting out in social situations: It’s not easy to trust someone who appears superficial. Often early experiences in childhood play a part: social perfectionists may have experienced betrayal or feeling emotionally unsafe and unsupported. There’s also the praise and validation for high achievements and criticism/ punishment for perceived shortcomings or mistakes. It all gets reinforced.    

If unchecked perfectionism can be detrimental. It has been linked to a vast number of chronic physical health and mental health conditions, at its most detrimental and sadly, it has been linked to suicidality. People often joke in passing, “I’m such a perfectionist LOL!”, I really wish for more recognition that perfectionism isn’t a simple light-hearted condition. When maladaptive, its limiting and has a significant adverse impact on people’s lives. 

The rise of social perfectionism and its destructive impact does raise serious questions about society. Our world has become one which is centred on ratings, goals and social comparisons- which children are now socialised into from a very early age. With support and guidance, social perfectionists can learn to manage their perfectionism better. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been found to be helpful in addressing maladaptive perfectionism. Here are some tips that you may find helpful in moving away from perfectionism: 

Set realistic (and healthy) standards: It helps to be aware of the point at which your goals are causing more harm than good. Imagine someone you really care about having the standards that you’ve set for yourself. How would you feel about that person relying on the approval of others for self-worth? Is it OK? If not, what would you want for them? Can you give that to yourself? Realistic standards mean that you are less likely to fall into the avoidance/ procrastination vicious cycle which triggers beliefs of failure and fuels perfectionism. 

Recognise the futility in comparing yourself to others: We only see a tiny snapshot of other people’s lives, usually the best bits. So you’re comparing the minutiae percentage of what you see in another person with your whole character and being. What sense does that make!? People are often so caught up in their own lives that they probably haven’t given THAT much thought into those things you strive for. How many times have you mindlessly clicked the ‘like’ button or scroll past something you did actually like.

It’s worth seeing what happens when you adjust your high standards, does what you predict come true…  More often than not, I find the fears that social perfectionists carry are over-inflated and catastrophic. Let’s say that your fear is true… you’re gonna mess up that social you’ve been invited to! Or your post only gets 1/4 of the likes you expected!! What’s so bad about that? No really…WHAT’s so bad about that! Social perfectionists place so much significance on things that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of life.  

Adopt a mindset of growth and reflection: this encourages flexible thinking as opposed to a rigid black and white lens of “good” vs “bad”. A growth mindset accepts that life is about learning and that mistakes and limitations are part of being human. What I notice actually happens is that people are happier and more successful when they let go of their perfectionism. 

On the surface social perfectionism may seem fairly harmless. However, it’s a force that can have an erroneous impact on people’s lives. What’s key, is recognising its limits and seeing it for what it is. It’s wonderful when I get to see clients embrace the beauty of shedding the stifling skin of social perfectionism. If you are a social perfectionist then hope that you can too!

Ruth Parchment is a Cambridge, UK-based psychotherapist. She specialises in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and has an interest in the detrimental impact of dominant ideas and beliefs. Ruth has written articles on a variety of topics including, forgiveness, perfectionism, happiness, and building healthy loving relationships. Check out her website and follow her on Instagram and Facebook.