It's the cliche answer to everyone's most dreaded interview question: "What, would you say, is your biggest weakness?"
Perfectionism. It’s the answer that’s said to work because it is not really seen as a weakness. Not in the workplace, anyway, where striving for perfection is often celebrated.
But what about when that same quest spills over into other parts of our lives? When it starts to affect how we measure our personal achievements, our appearance or our relationships? The trait can quickly become a huge strain on our mental health. The constant setting of unrealistic goals can give way to a downward spiral in mood and be the root cause of anxiety or depression. But perfectionism isn't always recognised as a condition, says Dr Nicholas Wakefield, a clinical psychologist from The LightHouse Centre for Wellbeing in Dubai.
The dangers of perfectionism
“It’s rare that people acknowledge they have a problem with perfectionism,” he says. “I have people coming to me with anxiety and depression, and often, this can manifest from a deep-rooted perfectionist mindset.”
Wakefield is so convinced of perfectionism’s profound effect on mental health that he is holding a workshop on the topic at the LightHouse Arabia Wellness Centre in Dubai on November 21, from 9am to noon. The free-to-attend workshop aims to help people recognise and understand their personal perfectionism, and how their lives and relationships are being affected by it.
"Perfectionism is worn as a badge of honour in the workplace," Wakefield says. "But it can often lead to low morale and eventual burnout. Where one person might think achieving 85 per cent in something is good enough, a perfectionist can never settle for less than 99 per cent – this goes for their personal life, too." He adds that, in the UAE, the pressure to lead a certain lifestyle only adds to the problem. "People feel like they should have a certain job or live a certain life, and social media just ups the ante."
Social media pressure
Dr Bahjat Balbous of the Euromed Clinic Center agrees that living in a city like Dubai can easily breed perfectionist attitudes. “Many people use social media to connect with friends at home,” he explains. “They want to be seen as prosperous and living a better life than they would if they had remained in their home country. After all, most people come to the UAE to embark on an adventure and seek new career opportunities, along with financial rewards. In an expat culture, it is expected that they would want to portray that they are achieving what they set out to.”
But for a perfectionist, even if those original goals are achieved, social media is constantly pushing the goalposts for what is deemed to be the perfect life, making it impossible to keep up. Dr Rasha Bassim, specialist psychiatrist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre Dubai says: "Social media commonly creates a false perception of who people are and what their lives are actually like. It provides the seeds for endless comparisons, as well as unrealistic beliefs about the ideal perfect self."
Balbous adds: “From my experience, it tends to be women in their early twenties who suffer most, as they are the ones who are spending hours on social media platforms posting, commenting and comparing themselves to others, or rather the carefully curated lives that those they follow showcase. This craving to live a perfect life also has a detrimental impact on body image,” he says.
“Nowadays, prospective patients, including teenagers, are no longer bringing in photos of celebrities to their consultations. Instead they are bringing in their social media selfies, which have been Photoshopped into ‘perfect’ versions of themselves.”
'It’s OK to be imperfect'
But Wakefield insists that perfectionism is much more than just a social media problem. “We find that perfectionism often affects people in their late thirties and early forties,” he says. “People of this age who have been constantly striving for the next big thing or the next achievement often reach a point where they just burn out.”
But one of the biggest strains of a perfectionist attitude is the impact it can have on those closest to us, which is one of the key points the workshop will be addressing. “When those unrealistic goals are set for our friends, family members or partners, it can often lead to feelings of disappointment or resentment. We can often expect too much from others, which can affect the balance of that relationship.”
Regardless of goals, everyone will have a part of their life they wish was perfect, and there is nothing wrong with striving to achieve that. But it’s important to take a step back, assess what is achievable, and be kind to yourself if it doesn’t work out exactly as you had hoped. “Remember, it’s OK to be imperfect,” explains Bassim. “Nobody is perfect. You just need to focus on your points of strength rather than your weaknesses and be proud.”