Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 short story “The Birth-Mark” centres on a young scientific scholar who develops an unhealthy obsession with a small red birthmark on his wife’s cheek. His wife is noted for her beauty, but for the young scholar the issue lies in his bride’s tantalising proximity to perfection. This one tiny aberration proves too much for him to take. He ascribes the birthmark additional meaning, viewing it as a sign of the “fatal flaw of humanity” and his wife’s “liability to sin, sorrow, decay and death” [1].

His bride comes to internalise her husband’s feelings and so asks him to remove this single display of her physical fallibility – to “fix” her. He conceals her in a boudoir by his laboratory and subjects her to a variety of alchemical concoctions. The wife observes of her husband that “his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.” Eventually one of his potions succeeds in removing the birthmark. However, no sooner has it done so than his young bride passes away.

Hawthorne’s tale of the ruinous effects of perfectionism echoes louder today than ever. A study of over 41,000 people published by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill in Psychological Bulletin found that perfectionism’s prevalence in society has increased [2]. Their study, the first of its kind in comparing perfectionism across generations (from 1989 to 2016), found significant increases in the rates of perfectionism among recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada compared with those of previous generations [3]. Kate Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University says that today, “As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists…We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue” [4].

As Amanda Ruggeri notes, writing on the subject for the BBC, that rise in perfectionism “doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential” [5].

The Perfect Body

As Hawthorne’s 19th century story demonstrates, perfectionism is nothing new. But aspects of today’s society serve to exacerbate it. The correlations between the young scholar and his bride in “The Birth-Mark” and the prevalence of plastic surgery in today’s society is obvious. As the bride died in the name of her husband’s obsessive pursuit, so too do a certain fraction of today’s patients die under the knife in pursuit of plasticised perfection. Others irrevocably change their appearance again and again, never quite satisfied, always certain they’re just one operation away. They place their faith in tomorrows, which of course are only – but more crucially, always – a day away.

Cosmetic surgery deaths are the most extreme and garish example of the perfectionism phenomena, but this rut runs far deeper. There’s no longer a need to fly to the Dominican Republic for cheap tummy tuck surgery, after all. Nowadays, one can simply use an app on their phone to slice away the flab, add some colour to the skin or remove those pesky, unwanted pimples from photos. You can easily obfuscate any and all potential flaws you see within yourself at the click of a button. Social media is awash with amended images of falsified selves living picturesque lives. These beautiful unrealities are designed to suppress insecurities (that they end up exponentially worsening) through the fleeting validation afforded by the likes of friends and strangers, who are themselves represented by equally falsified avatars.

Unsurprisingly social media’s impact on body image is most harmful to the young, who spend disproportionate amounts of time online (a survey by the nonprofit research organisation Common Sense Media found that the average screen time for 13-18 year-olds was eight hours and 39 minutes a day). Research published by the American Psychological Association found that “teens and young adults who reduced their social media use by 50% for just a few weeks saw significant improvement in how they felt about both their weight and their overall appearance compared with peers who maintained consistent levels of social media use” [6].

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation have stated that record numbers of young people are experiencing mental illness, with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation more common in the US, Canada and UK today than even a decade ago [7]. This is of course not all down to the ease of Photoshop botox or sepia Instagram filters. To think the nefarious effects of perfectionism are limited to the physical would be to miss the mark. Dissatisfaction with the body stems from the mind.

The Perfect Self

Curran and Hill ascribe the exponential rise in perfectionism amongst today’s youth to “increasingly demanding social and economic parameters” as well as “increasingly anxious and controlling parental practices” [8]. In The Tyranny of Merit, the American philosopher Michael Sandel argues that meritocratic capitalism has created a permanent state of competition within society. This system sustains an order of winners and losers, “breeding hubris and self-congratulation among the former and chronically low self-worth among the latter” [9].

Millennials and those of younger generations are far more likely to have undertaken some form of higher education than their predecessors. And yet graduates, even those with highly specialised Master’s degrees, are finding it difficult to find work in increasingly oversaturated markets. Those who do gain employment are often settling for junior roles consisting of administrative duties that fail to make use of their (generally hugely expensive) education. They find themselves on the unrewarding bottom rung of a ladder that makes no guarantee of further ascent and pays them so little (if at all, in the era of the unpaid internship) that they often struggle to make rent or rely on a litany of exhaustive side-hustles to do so.

Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, notes that in such a culture “young people are likely to grow dissatisfied both with what they have and who they are.” Meanwhile, “social media creates additional pressure to construct a perfect public image, exacerbating our feelings of inadequacy” [10].

Concurrently, all around us self-help gurus preach the importance of betterment – educational, emotional, physical, financial – in droves. The idea that we must seek something better than what we have – something graspable if we just put the work in (or better yet, like and subscribe) – is pernicious, and fuels the fire of inadequacy. If we are seeking something better, it’s because there is something lacking in what we have. No wonder we feel unfulfilled when we’re surrounded by false prophets promising they have the key to fulfilment’s kingdom. Who knew satisfaction was just a pricey online self-help course away?

According to research examining 43 different studies over 20 years by York St. John University, perfectionism is linked to burnout as well as depression, anxiety and even mortality [11]. That’s right, perfectionists die younger [12]. Since it’s so linked to such disastrous outcomes, then, why is it we can’t kick the perfectionist habit?

Positive perfection

Because we don’t want to. For all its obvious faults, most of us still attribute some kind of value to perfectionism. It’s become job interview parody to say that your greatest weakness is that you’re a perfectionist. As we all know, this is really a sneaky positive. Perfectionism has come to be associated with a strong work ethic, ambition, and high attainment.

Researchers argue that these benefits are illusory. Sarah Egan, a senior research fellow at the Curtin University in Perth who specialises in perfectionism, eating disorders and anxiety, notes that “the difficult part of [perfectionism], and what makes it different than depression or anxiety, is that the person often values it. If we have anxiety or depression, we don’t value those symptoms. We want to get rid of them. When we see a person with perfectionism, they can often be ambivalent towards change. People say it brings them benefits.”

It becomes an endless loop. Perfectionism brings a person dissatisfaction – maybe even depression or suicidal ideation – so they go to a therapist to fix the problem. They want to get rid of the depression, they say, but they don’t want to lose the perfectionism that contributes to it as they believe it offers them something essential. It’s like going to a personal trainer and demanding they help you lose weight while telling them you have no intention of cutting the daily fast food, sugary drinks and excessive alcohol from your diet. Something’s gotta give.

Obviously ambition, diligence and high standards are positive traits. The problem is that these traits are wrongly associated with a kind of “healthy” perfectionism, when really they’re not perfectionism at all. They’re conscientiousness [13]. As Hill notes, “Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards…Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself” [14]. Wanting to do well is good. Beating yourself up if you don’t is not.

Humanity’s quest for perfection

It’s possible that perfectionism is just part of our nature. Cohen draws parallels between the human strive for perfection and religious and mythical tales of divine wrath. Prometheus and the Tower of Babel provide examples of what happens when man tries to overextend his reach: the relevant divinity rains down punishment. According to Cohen, “Religious striving for moral and spiritual improvement goes in tandem with the sombre recognition that perfection belongs to God alone.” Or more strikingly, “In the religious imagination, the notion of human perfection is blasphemy” [15].

What to do?

As the late author David Foster-Wallace noted, “if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything” [16]. The writer Rebecca Solnit is also succinct in her denigration of perfection’s pitfalls: “The perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun” [17].

To break out of the perfectionism trap takes a shift in mindset – an acceptance of fallibility. It’s a false economy, really. You can’t achieve the perfect, so why are you trying to? Elizabeth Gilbert says perfectionism is nothing more than, “fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat” [18]. And even that may be giving it too much credit.

Hard as society makes it, it’s important not to focus on the birthmark. Better to reserve your attention for the living, breathing woman on whose cheek it sits. Singer Jeff Rosenstock’s primal shouts on his album closer Perfect Sound Whateversum it up nicely: “Perfect always takes so long because it don’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist.”

It can be worth remembering that.