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'I can be hard on myself': Shakira's struggles with perfectionism

Why striving to be perfect can make you MISERABLE: Shakira – a megastar with 65million Instagram fans – is the latest to reveal the struggle that so many of us can identify with

  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder classified as mental health disorder
  • Chris Ward, author of Less Perfect, More Happy talks of perfectionism dangers 
  • The pop-star Shakira has gone public and opened up about how it affects her

Type the word ‘perfectionism’ into Google and these are some of the news stories you might find: ‘Perfectionistic students get higher grades, but at what cost?’, ‘Why businesses should reject perfectionism in 2020’, and ‘Why is it so hard to change perfectionism?’

As a mental health issue, it’s being increasingly talked about. And when Shakira, one of the world’s biggest pop stars with 65 million Instagram followers, goes public about how it affects her, you know social media is embracing it, too.

‘I can really be hard on myself wanting to be 100 per cent perfect,’ she revealed in a recent interview. ‘There’s always something that I wish would have been done differently and that I could have done better.’

Perfectionism, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), as it is known in the medical world, is classified as a mental health disorder.

As a mental health issue, it’s being increasingly talked about. And when Shakira (pictured), one of the world’s biggest pop stars with 65 million Instagram followers, goes public about how it affects her, you know social media is embracing it, too

Those affected are excessively concerned with orderliness, control and attention to detail, and the problem can overlap with other disorders, ranging from eating problems to obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and suicide.

The problem has reached epidemic proportions, according to a 2018 study involving 40,000 students at universities in the UK, U.S. and Canada. 

The research, led by Thomas Curran, a social and personality psychologist at the University of Bath, found that since 1989 there has been a 33 per cent increase in those who felt they must display perfection to secure approval.

But at what point does perfectionism go from being a virtue to a problem? The answer lies in what drives it, suggests Chris Ward, the author of Less Perfect, More Happy.

In his book, he explains that low self-esteem is the trigger for crossing the line into problematic perfectionism: ‘Trying to achieve perfection because you think you’ll enjoy the journey or the reward is good, but trying to achieve perfection because you know you are doing it to prove yourself good enough is where the separation is.’

Perfectionism, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), as it is known in the medical world, is classified as a mental health disorder (file image)

Ward’s book gives an insight into the personal cost of a lifetime of imposing impossible standards both on the perfectionist and those around them.

‘I became a toxic, controlling, demanding, unpleasant, always right, perfectionist parent and partner,’ he says.

Inside, however, he felt lonely, misunderstood, anxious that everything needed to be right and worried that anything could go wrong at any point. ‘Perfectionists are hard on themselves, as much as other people,’ he adds.

Ward explains this personality trait often develops in childhood, as a reaction to not feeling good enough, usually as a result of perfectionist parents (as in his case) or a situation the child has no control over, such as a divorce or death. 

In an interview on the U.S. TV show 60 Minutes, Shakira linked her perfectionist streak to her father being declared bankrupt when she was a child.

Children are especially vulnerable after divorce, as they try to create order and control in an unstable environment, says Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester.

He also says: ‘Women entering male-dominated occupations or jobs may feel they need to be perfectionists, to prove to their male bosses they can deliver.’

How to spot a perfectionist boss – or partner 

Does this describe you, your partner or boss? Here, Chris Ward identifies some perfectionist characteristics.

The perfectionist employer

  • Rarely delegates, needing to control everything.
  • Has extreme attention to detail … and never forgets anything they asked you.
  • Is devoted to tasks at the expense of relationships.
  • Firmly believes their way is the only way.
  • Rarely gives employees compliments.
  • Lacks compassion about illness or lateness or requests for days off.

Perfectionist Parent

  • Constantly shows their children how to do things better.
  • Argumentative with partner (often over parenting issues)
  • Imposes own high standards on children and constantly criticises them.
  • Always distracted (by a task or worry in their head).
  • Is rigid about rules.
  • Very competitive: may not be around for supper most nights but is there every sports day.

Perfectionist Partner

  • Struggles to share emotions.
  • Can be brutally honest.
  • Procrastinates and makes last-minute decisions.
  • Frugal.
  • Has ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking (if they can’t dedicate the time to make it perfect, is not interested).
  • Controlling.
  • Righteousness about the way things should be done.

Another factor in the rise in perfectionism may be social media, suggests Professor Cooper. ‘Perfectionism is certainly linked to the social media generation, where everyone portrays themselves as perfect: best lifestyle, best physical shape, best social life via Instagram and Twitter.’

Although Ward’s own perfectionism initially earned him great success at work, marketing such brands as Comic Relief, in the end it became his undoing as he struggled to delegate and relinquish control, always ending up deep in details and working too late.

‘Once, the day before a big pitch, I made some colleagues stay in the office with me all night to perfect the presentation,’ he recalls. ‘My staff knew I’d lost the plot, that I’d lost sight of reality in a bid for the perfect pitch. Meanwhile I’d totally lost their respect.’

Yet his perfectionism was at its most destructive at home, damaging all his closest relationships, especially with his four children.

‘I have argued and told my children off for things that didn’t matter — for instance, arriving home late or ordering everyone to ‘keep this place tidy, please!’ 

‘Ward can now see he spent his entire life trying to make his own perfectionist parents proud, but it took his father’s death to open ‘the door to the end of my obsession’. Yet it would be another four years before Ward finally accepted he had a problem.

While researching a book on achieving success without academic qualifications — as he had done — he came across OCPD and realised: ‘That’s me’. Talking to sufferers and those affected by their behaviour — as well as therapy allowed him to create a 12-step process to managing perfectionism. 

This includes understanding what it is and what might have caused it, and listing how it impacts your life. Is Ward cured? He believes that you either are or aren’t a perfectionist, but by embracing who you are — and with help from counselling — its grip can be lessened.

Having witnessed his children bombarded with pressures to be perfect, Ward is now fighting against the cult of perfection, and lodged a petition with the Advertising Standard Authority to ban advertisers from using the words ‘perfect’ and ‘perfection’. ‘Advertisers are causing children to believe they live in a world where perfection is expected or promised as standard,’ he says.

While he still dreads making a piece of toast in his perfectionist mother’s pristine kitchen, he turns a blind eye to the mess his children can make. These days, the kitchen in the family’s West London home is no longer a place of rigid rules and constant criticism: ‘It’s where the family ‘chat, cuddle, share meals, share problems’.

Ward says a valuable lesson he’s learned is that time spent with those you love matters more than perfection. ‘I learned that lesson late — a lesson that can save millions of wasted hours obsessing about achieving something that doesn’t exist.’

  • Less Perfect, More Happy by Chris Ward is published by Blue Dot World, £11.99.

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