In Depth on Perfectionism with Prof. Tracey Wade
The drive for perfectionism is unusually common in people experiencing body image issues and eating disorders. Perfectionism is quite different from the drive to improve, which is an appropriate and healthy desire. Perfectionistic people, however, believe that “perfect” is possible—and the problem is that it’s not. This sets up the perfectionist for continual frustration and disappointment, which in turn leads to mental health issues, including eating disorders.
In this episode, our host Sam Ikin sits down with Professor Tracey Wade, who has spent 30 years researching the intersection of perfectionism and eating disorders. “As a perfectionist, you tend to have high but impossible goals,” she says. “And when you inevitably don’t meet them, then self-criticism and depression occur. Perfectionism actually takes people away from success.”
In fact, of all the difficult issues it causes, perfectionism has a particularly strong relationship to eating disorders.
Professor Wade spent time with Sam to explore what distinguishes perfectionism from the normal drive to achieve, how it harms health and wellbeing, and how we can learn to think differently for ongoing recovery.
Sam Ikin 00:10
So many of the people that we speak to on this show who have experienced an eating disorder or are experiencing an eating disorder, describe themselves as a perfectionist to some degree. That surely that’s not a coincidence. But what is perfectionism? And why does it seem to go hand in hand with eating disorders or negative body image? And does it mean that we need to be striving for less than perfection to reduce the chances of developing an eating disorder? Obviously, this is something we need to explore in more depth. So we’ve reached out to one of Australia’s top researchers in the field, she has worked in eating disorders for 30 years, which is longer than the Butterfly Foundation has even existed. And her skill set and research fits the bill perfectly.
Tracey Wade 00:51
My name is Tracey Wade, and I’m a professor of psychology at Flinders University. And I’m also the director of the Flinders Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing. But my major areas of interest, eating disorders and perfectionism.
Sam Ikin 01:07
I’m Sam Ikin, this is Butterfly: Let’s Talk in Depth. Professor Tracey Wade, thanks for being with us.
Tracey Wade 01:12
Sam Ikin 01:13
What made you want to study perfectionism in the first place?
Tracey Wade 01:16
Well, I actually can think one of my PhD students, she was very interested in perfectionism and its connection with anxiety and then obviously, I could see that it related to eating disorders, as well. And life tends to be a series of fortunate or unfortunate events, sometimes not highly planned. And I was introduced to my colleague, Roz Shafran, in the UK, who was very interested in perfectionism as well. And she and Sarah Egan from Western Australia and myself, have worked together ever since on perfectionism, and developing and evaluating interventions for it.
Sam Ikin 02:04
It is such an interesting subject when you start to dig into it, but I think let’s start with the most basic point and that is what is it? How do you define it?
Tracey Wade 02:13
It’s actually a really important question, because so many different people have different ideas. But the way that we talk about it is that you have high but impossible goals. So for example, it might be that I have to get a high distinction in every bit of work that I turn out. The trouble is, when you set yourself up like that, you’re not always going to meet those goals, and when you don’t, then self criticism occurs, and people beat themselves up. And they also don’t celebrate the wins or their achievements, they become focused on what they haven’t done. And what we know about that type of vicious cycle is that it does impair life. And importantly, it actually takes people further away from important goals. So people think that by beating themselves up, they’ll actually spur themselves on. But what we find is that it leads to depression, disordered eating anxiety, and suicidality. So one of the favourite definitions I have of perfectionism was actually something that was said by St. Catherine of Siena, in the 1300s. When she died, we think she died of anorexia nervosa in her early 30s. But this is what she said, “Make a supreme effort to root out self love from your heart, and to plant in its place this wholly self hatred. This is the road by which we turn our backs on mediocrity, which leaves us without fail to the summit of perfection.”
Sam Ikin 03:59
Wow, self hatred. I mean, that’s what’s at the heart of it, isn’t it you have to hate whatever it is so badly that you need to do something, you know, you need to make drastic goals for yourself.
Tracey Wade 04:10
That’s exactly right. You don’t feel good enough. You set these high impossible goals to make yourself feel better. You don’t attain them. And that perpetuates the self hatred or the self criticism. And people feel that if they’re not perfect, then they’re mediocre. So there’s that black and white thinking about this either or option?
Sam Ikin 04:33
Well, I have a very high achieving younger brother. And when I try and tell him about perfectionism, and how it’s a problem and all of this, he’s like, “Well, you’ve got to have goals for yourself,” because obviously he’s he’s, you know, pushing himself and striving to do better all the time. But I’ve said what I don’t believe that what you have is perfectionism, what you have is, you know, constantly reassessing the goals that you can attain, and then moving forward in the increment. Is that a common misconception?
Tracey Wade 04:59
Oh, we have are very keen to try and distinguish perfectionism from wanting to achieve. And the literature would suggest that wanting to achieve and wanting to achieve excellence is not harmful. That’s actually not the problem. So just stepping back a bit, achieving doesn’t mean that you push yourself slightly a bit more each time, but you don’t set impossible goals, you don’t set goals that are out of reach, and you don’t strive for them and beat yourself up. You take it as a challenge and you learn from that, and you may change your goals as you go along. But the journey is as important as the destination. With perfectionism, it’s a completely different type of issue where people are just focused on the destination, and feel like they’ve never ever arrived.
Sam Ikin 05:56
Going back to the same example my little brother will try to do a better time in his Ironman marathon because he’s, you know, he’s already achieved the extremely large goal of being able to do what in the first place. Whereas, you know, I might say, I am going to follow this diet that I saw on Instagram and lift really heavy weights like they do down at the gym. And eventually, I’m going to look like Chris Hemsworth and if I don’t, I’m a complete failure. And that’s it. For me, I feel like that is, that’s how I kind of explained it. But I think you just you do it so much better.
Tracey Wade 06:37
They are great examples.
Sam Ikin 06:40
How common is it? I feel like a lot of people say I’m a perfectionist when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I’m like, so you have high standards when it comes to you’re not necessarily a perfectionist. How common is perfectionism?
Tracey Wade 06:55
Yeah, I think we should never apologise for high standards and it’s perfectionism, that is probably the problem, that debilitating perfectionism. And we think the estimate is about four out of 10 adolescents have that debilitating perfectionism. And so that’s about 40% of kids who will progress into adulthood with that perfectionism unless it’s challenged or treated. And we also know that perfectionism is increasing in young people over the last 20 years. And I think there’s just more environmental pressures, generally, we’ve got a world that’s more focused on individual achievement. We’ve got parents and schools who are more geared up to try and, you know, in the best interests push their child through, so they can do well. And there’s this focus on doing better than others to get ahead, which I think is an emerging pressure.
Sam Ikin 07:56
is it always negative? Does it always lead to bad outcomes? Or can it be something that drives you in the right direction occasionally?
Tracey Wade 08:05
We would say that perfectionism by nature is always harmful and unhelpful. But that’s why we are very keen to distinguish it from achieving and wanting to do better and having high standards, which are not unhelpful. So it might be helpful to think about perfectionism is where people are pushed towards their goals, by the fear of not reaching them and the fear might be a failure, disappointing others, reveals how inadequate they really are. Whereas if people were seeking excellence, or achievement, then they pull towards their goals. They decide to achieve them to find out more. They’re inherently curious about what they’re doing. And then again, this is where the journey is as interesting as the destination.
Sam Ikin 08:58
So is there a point that you can pinpoint where you like this has now become a problem this this tendency toward perfectionism, or is it a problem from the very start?
Tracey Wade 09:11
I think you can see perfectionism start to emerge in childhood. And it is problematic because it’s linked to a lot with all or nothing type of, if it’s not like this, then it’s no good. So that immediately engenders disappointment, self criticism, anxiety. And people can have goals and push themselves, but it’s really removing it from the perfectionistic framework, and achieving in a way that doesn’t rely on this perfectionistic thinking.
Sam Ikin 09:45
Yeah, I will. Almost everybody that I speak to through this show, describes himself as a perfectionist, or at least they were a perfectionist before they found a path to recovery or something like that. What causes it like a lot of people can go back and look at their child in their childhood and say this was the point here where I was publicly shamed about, you know, not looking like my brother, and that was when my body image took a nosedive. Would that an event like that cause somebody then to go and begin to manifest perfectionist tendencies.
Tracey Wade 10:19
Yeah, so we know there’s a bit of a genetic predisposition. And so that, you know, it means it runs in families. And that starts to manifest itself in childhood. But there’s definitely an array of environmental triggers for that genetic susceptibility. And peer teasing about appearance is an absolutely toxic trigger for this type of perfectionism and disordered eating, and, and those, and it’s not unusual for people to remember that one salient event that triggered that, that tendency that they had. And so that’s definitely a both genes and environment.
Sam Ikin 11:01
So who’s at risk? Are there any groups that are more susceptible to perfectionism than others?
Tracey Wade 11:07
Potentially, anyone can be susceptible, but clearly, if you’ve got more genetic loading, you’re more susceptible. But then it depends on how toxic your environmental triggers are. So if you’re brought up in a family who celebrates failure, you know, see that it’s actually something that’s not shameful, but character building, if you go to a school that emphasises the full package, you know, these things can moderate that risk. But conversely, if you’ve got a lot of exposure, particularly to social media, which is focused on the idea of perfect body perfect this perfect that with feedback, on favourable feedback from people or critical commentary, that sort of that does act as a very potent trigger for a lot of people.
Sam Ikin 11:59
We could talk about social media and how it feeds into all of these kinds of things but I think that’s a another long, very complicated story. But it’s certainly, you know, a very good point that you raised there. Why is perfectionism, such a common risk factor, particularly when it comes to body image issues?
Tracey Wade 12:19
It’s an interesting question, because we know that out of all the issues that perfectionism causes, it seems to have the strongest relationship with eating disorders. And I think that’s probably because at the core of eating disorders is this desire to control weight, shape, or eating. And they’re very measurable. They’re very concrete indicators. So if I’m this weight, if, if I’m this many centimetres around the hips, if I have these many calories, it’s it’s very measurable, the numbers are very potent. And so it’s very seductive. But I’m good enough if my number is x. And so it’s just a really concrete indicator to people that they’ve reached this good enough status.
Sam Ikin 13:12
Usually, most people who are perfectionist kind of know that they are, what can we what can you do to change your behaviour? Or do you need to… is it something you always need help with?
Tracey Wade 13:24
Well, what I should say really clearly is we know that perfectionism can be decreased, because we see that again and again, in our interventions. So it’s absolutely possible to decrease perfectionism. I think it’s hard to do it on your own, simply because people do tend to be self critical, and not notice small changes, if they’re perfectionistic. So it’s good to have a cheerleader working with you. It doesn’t have to be a therapist, but it can be someone else who can help you see the progress that you’re making. And the core of what we do with people was just help them to understand their ambivalence really about change, because a lot of people want to hold on to perfectionism. But it’s because they want to achieve. And we said, there’s nothing wrong with achievement. It’s just the way that you’re doing it, the harmful bits, which are actually holding you back from achieving your goals. But so we talk to people about the beliefs they have about perfectionism because they believe that it leads to success and that self criticism is a way to beat themselves up so they get better performance out of themselves. So we really try to help people understand that distinction between aiming having high goals versus perfectionism. And also understanding that self criticism paralyses people, it doesn’t obtain those valued goals. And also that working too hard just leads to burnout. We all need time out. We all need to take care of ourselves. We all need to practice some self compassion in order to be able to throw ourselves back into the melee, so we can get on with the things that we want to do that are challenging.
Sam Ikin 15:10
It sounds like perfection mitigation or reducing perfectionism should be a part of every eating disorder recovery team. And we know we have teams of people always, when everyone is recommended that you have a team of people, including dieticians, and psychologists, should perfectionism reduction be part of that process?
Tracey Wade 15:32
Yeah, I think it should certainly be on the menu, and it should be offered to people. Some people would say, “Oh, well, I’m not a perfectionist, I can’t do anything well,” so you just have to work around that identification. But we also know that working on perfectionism, improves self esteem, for example, it improves depression, it improves body image. So it’s a bit of a win-win. I think people relate to all various bits of it the all or nothing thinking, self criticism, there are bits, I think that would relate to everybody. And in fact, we take the programming to schools now, because schools are getting quite anxious about what’s happening to the students, they all want to achieve, but they’re getting paralysed because they don’t believe they can achieve. So it’s even in terms of prevention, I think it’s really useful to roll it out at that level.
Sam Ikin 16:29
In terms of carers and health professionals, are there ways that they should be operating or things that they should be keeping in mind, as they, you know, deal with the people who they’re looking after?
Tracey Wade 16:41
Yeah, I think it’s good for them to read up a bit on perfectionism, just getting a bit of an understanding of what it looks like and how it affects people. And so I know that the Centre for Clinical Interventions has some psycho-ed on perfectionism that’s freely available, there are self help books, one of them, Conflict of Interests written by myself and my colleagues. So there are things that people can read, just get their head around it. But also, I talked earlier about celebrating mistakes and I think that’s something that families can help their loved one do. And I was amused, one of my postdocs has a nephew, and he was invited to a seven year old birthday party, where the theme is celebrating mistakes. And, you know, I thought that was delightful to be broadcasting that message. Families can also help people celebrate successes because perfectionists are not good at doing that. So families can also help them get that balance right about mistakes are a way to actually find out more about yourself. It’s really how we learn about how to interact with life, but success is also worth celebrating.
Sam Ikin 18:01
Absolutely. So lastly, I just going to ask you a question from left field, which I think you should be able to handle quite easily. So through your research, looking at this, can you extrapolate your findings into other areas? So do you think that there are findings about perfectionism and about, as opposed to achieving highly, that can be applied to government or to the way people run businesses or things like that?
Tracey Wade 18:29
Yeah, thank you for that question. That’s, that’s a good one, I actually, we actually believe that being perfectionistic in the workplace, does decrease the amount of productive output. And that would be a really interesting bit of research to do. To actually then treat perfectionism in the workplace. And that would be the whole workplace, the bosses and you know, the whole workplace, and see how that changed productivity and outputs, because I believe it actually would have a profound effect. I think the government, sadly, is trapped a bit in the media cycle of having to look like they’re always in control. And, you know, that’s a really difficult gig. And if they, if they do admit to a mistake, everyone’s on them. And so I think that’s a really unfortunate cycle that we’ve got into with our politicians where we expect we tend to expect perfectionism and not be compassionate enough, really.
Sam Ikin 19:36
Definitely some consultancy opportunities for you there.
Tracey Wade 19:40
I’ll keep that in mind.
Sam Ikin 19:42
If you want to find out more about Professor Wade’s research, and I warn you there is a lot of it, there’s a link to her Flinders University profile in the show notes, and that’ll take you everywhere you need to go to read for hours and hours. If you’re worried about perfectionism, and you think it could be a sign of something bigger, jumping to the risks and warnings page and butterfly.org.au. And if you feel like you need support, there’s always the Butterfly Helpline on 1800 33 46 73 That’s 1800 ED HOPE if you prefer the letters to the numbers. And before I go, I’d like to ask you to leave us a rating and a review. Wherever you’re listening to this podcast, just scroll down to the bottom of this episode and follow the prompts. It won’t take you a minute, and you will have our eternal gratitude. Huge thanks to Professor Tracey Wade. And, of course, my producer Camilla Becket. This has been an Ikin Media production. I’m Sam Ikin. Thank you so much for your company.