In a COVID-19 world:  Are we headed for a ‘perfectionism pandemic’?


Researchers sound the alarm over perfectionism, work, and burnout during the pandemic

 TORONTO, April 21, 2020 – The increasing physical and social isolation prescribed to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the disruption to daily routines, are exacerbating already high levels of stress and complex psychological problems found among vulnerable perfectionists, according to a new commentary and analysis led by York University Psychology Professor Gordon Flett.

research on a perfectionism pandemicPerfectionists may become even more perfectionistic during the pandemic in response to their need to try to regain a sense of control in their lives, says Flett, a professor in York University’s Faculty of Health and the Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health. In the first full analysis of how perfectionists are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Flett, and co-author Paul. L. Hewitt, Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, explain why perfectionism could become even worse, especially for people who had pre-existing milder forms of perfectionism.

The Perfectionism Pandemic Meets COVID-19: Understanding the Stress, Distress, and Problems in Living For Perfectionists During the Global Health Crisis, was published today in The Journal of Concurrent Disorders.

Flett defines the ‘perfectionism pandemic’ as the widespread and growing prevalence of perfectionism, based on research showing that at least one out of three young people have some form of dysfunctional perfectionism, and there is a rising tide of perfectionism. The 27-page commentary explains why this global health crisis can be categorized as a biographical disruption for perfectionists. Researchers reviewed current research to explain why those working from home, workers on front lines and even youth, who are vulnerable perfectionists, may find it exceptionally difficult to cope with loneliness and separation anxiety. The pandemic also adds to the sense of isolation and aloneness of people who have been struggling with the pressures of being perfect, says Flett.

In the commentary, Flett includes insight from previous research on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the U.S. science-based efforts to address the pandemic, who has said he was driven by a sense of obligation to the people who were ill and he tried to be as perfect as he could be, even though he knew he wasn’t and isn’t perfect (because no one is perfect).

“Perfectionists who are among the frontline workers are being exposed to great personal risk yet must project calm and confidence while hiding their own terror behind their masks,” says Flett.

“In overwhelming situations that evoke feelings of helplessness, medical personnel are going to be prime candidates for post-traumatic stress, but this will be especially true for driven perfectionists who are troubled by their lack of control. These remarkable people will, in all likelihood, keep pushing themselves beyond the point of exhaustion. They are driven by the pressure they feel to live up to the exceedingly high expectations imposed on them by other people and society in general.

Professor Flett is available for interviews and can provide insight on the topics below.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic may increase a person’s tendency to ruminate on a past failure or not being perfect.
    Instead, physically isolated perfectionists in quarantine should find ways of cognitively distracting themselves by reading or by listening to podcasts or watching escapist forms of television.
  • People who either live with perfectionists or are perfectionists and who are in isolation with a partner are more likely during the pandemic to wear on each other and experience conflicts.
    Instead, they should use the opportunity to reflect on how they define themselves and how they relate to others and derive satisfaction from finding valued ways to make a difference in the lives of other people.
  • Workers feel trapped in a situation they cannot change and may feel extreme pressure to be exceptionally productive while balancing family obligations. Instead of feeling inadequate and being self-critical, they should learn to be self-compassionate and develop self-acceptance.
  • The pandemic may affect the sense of self and identity as the severe disruption to daily routines can impact those who are motivated by their goals. They may work obsessively now or, if they can't, will be very driven to make up lost time, which can lead to more burn-out.
    Instead, they should learn to combat their anxiety and upset by learning mindfulness and engage in forms of exercise to become more relaxed. 

Watch Professor Flett explain the impact of perfectionism on frontline healthcare workers during the COVD-19 pandemic below.

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