Toxic curse of trying to be ‘Little Miss Perfect’: More and more women feel under pressure to excel in everything they do — often with catastrophic consequences. Now one group of sufferers is saying it’s time we put an end it
- Sheena Tanna-Shah, 37, from Northampton was on the brink of breakdown
- She had strived to have the perfect body, be the perfect wife, the perfect mother
- High-achieving optometrist is one of a new breed of ‘recovering perfectionists’
- A study found that perfectionism has soared by 33% in recent generations
Every evening, after putting her two daughters to bed, Sheena Tanna-Shah walked into her own bedroom, closed the door behind her, sat on the floor with her back against it, and sobbed.
‘My emotions were all over the place. I was irritable and angry,’ says Sheena, 37, from Northampton. For years, the high-achieving optometrist had strived to have the perfect body, be the perfect wife, the perfect friend and perfect mother.
By the time her youngest daughter, Isla, was two, the effort to excel had brought her to the brink of breakdown. ‘Every day I’d try and be perfect,’ she recalls. ‘The more I tried, the worse I felt.’ Six years, endless therapy sessions and much soul-searching later, and Sheena has learned to stop holding herself to impossibly high standards.
She is one of a new breed of ‘recovering perfectionists’ — women once addicted to attaining impossible ideals and becoming ‘Little Miss Perfect’, be it at home, work or in the way they look, who have since overcome their compulsion to excel.
Sheena Tanna-Shah, 37, (pictured) from Northampton was on the brink of breakdown after striving for years to have the perfect body, be the perfect wife, the perfect friend and mother
A study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that perfectionism has soared in recent generations. ‘Socially prescribed’ perfectionism, in which people feel the weight of external expectations, was found to have increased by 33 per cent among students between 1989 and 2016. This trait seems to extend to adulthood and women, research shows, are more likely to be afflicted than men.
Perfectionism is drummed into us from childhood, when we are taught to be people-pleasers. The fetishisation of motherhood has fuelled the ideal of domestic perfection, while an increasingly competitive workplace has led to a fear of ever making a professional mistake.
Add to all this the flawless façade of social media and its by-product, comparison culture, in which we’re bombarded with carefully curated online images, and it’s little wonder we’re left equating anything other than perfection with failure.
Not only is the notion of ‘perfectionism’ a mirage — no matter what a perfectionist achieves, they will never feel that they have accomplished their goal — its pursuit damages health.
Studies have shown perfectionists are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and eating disorders. They are also more prone to insomnia and obsessive compulsive disorder.
And perversely, the terror of falling short of unattainable ideals prevents many from pursuing their ambitions at all.
‘Perfectionism is very much a female issue,’ says life and relationship coach Sue Tappenden, who is coaching increasing numbers of female perfectionists. ‘The filtered perfectionism of social media sits alongside the framework of expectation women have grown up with to look perfect, have a clean house, be liked and successful at work.
‘Pressure builds and my experience is that it’s not until women burn out or feel completely overwhelmed that they start to question why they are doing this to themselves.’
Sheena, a grade-A student whose Indian parents came to England as young adults, traces her perfectionist tendencies to childhood.
She is one of a new breed of ‘recovering perfectionists’ – women once addicted to attaining impossible ideals and becoming ‘Little Miss Perfect’, who have since overcome their compulsion to excel
‘In Indian culture perfectionism is common — parents want their children to make the most of opportunities they didn’t have,’ she says. By her teens, her perfectionism had extended to her physical appearance. ‘I’d count calories and measure food,’ she says. ‘I felt judged and anxious and ate emotionally as a result.’
By the time she met her husband Piyus, 38, when both were studying optometry at university, she was so self-conscious about her body she refused to eat in front of him for a year. ‘I worried if I spilt something I’d ruin the image of perfection,’ says Sheena, who hid her size 14 body in black and navy for its slimming effect, but shopped constantly to try and fit in: ‘Before any social or family event I’d buy a new outfit and jewellery.’
She was similarly terrified of falling short as a wife. ‘Piyus was outgoing whereas I was quiet. I struggled to be the sociable wife I thought he deserved. He knew I struggled with perfectionism, but found it hard to know how to help.’
In friendships, meanwhile, she went above and beyond the call of duty. ‘I’d constantly buy gifts and send cards,’ she recalls. ‘If I didn’t get a thank-you text back, I’d feel I wasn’t a good enough friend.’
Becoming a mother to Sienna, nine, and Isla, seven, further exacerbated her perfectionism: ‘Sometimes I couldn’t even go for a walk with them for fear of being judged in case one was crying.’
To the outside world, however, Sheena exuded competence. ‘I’d smile and pretend I was in control. Nobody would have guessed what I was going through. Every evening Piyus would sit on the other side of our bedroom door as I cried, trying to comfort me, but I felt alone and utterly overwhelmed,’ she says.
With her husband’s encouragement, she underwent cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in 2015. ‘I learned not to validate myself through other’s opinions and focus on what I wanted,’ she says.
‘I started practising mindfulness and meditation.’
She trained as a rapid transformation therapy practitioner — a job she now holds alongside her optometry work — and lost 16 lb.
‘I started eating to nourish myself, rather than worrying about what would make me put on weight,’ says Sheena. ‘I bought bright red jeans and jumpsuits — clothes I wanted to wear, rather than I thought I should wear to impress.’
Speechwriter Mandy Dineley, 56, said having children tipped her into perfectionist territory and fell into a toxic race to be perfect that caused her a lot of stress and she started dealing with the stress by drinking two or three glasses of wine at the end of the day
Last September she wrote a book, Perfectly Imperfect Mum, about her struggle. ‘I feel an inner peace and sense of freedom,’ she says.
While Sheena was already a perfectionist by the time she became a mother, having children tipped speechwriter Mandy Dineley, 56, from Fleet in Hampshire, into perfectionist territory. ‘I loved being a mum, but fell into a toxic race to be perfect that caused a lot of stress,’ says Mandy, married to Pete, 62, an accounts director.
Having given up a singing career to raise their children; Elliot, 23, Lily, 21, and George, 16, Mandy, and the new mum friends who had also abandoned careers, sought to re-define themselves through motherhood.
‘Most were lovely but a few I fell in with wanted to be wearing the “right” clothes and for their children to go to the “right” clubs,’ says Mandy. ‘I did the same because I wanted to be accepted.’
After enrolling her children in different private schools and joining their respective PTAs this pressure intensified. ‘I wanted to be seen to be doing something,’ says Mandy, who took on endless PTA tasks, painstakingly obsessing over every detail.
‘I’d be typing up material for a fashion show at 10pm, trying to make it perfect so I wouldn’t be criticised or let the children down,’ she recalls. ‘We’d spend weekends organising school events. I felt like a doormat. My poor husband thought I said “yes” too much, but he went along with it.’
Mandy swapped her quirky clothes for stiff-collared blouses and the family’s Vauxhall Frontera for a Land Rover, motivated not just by peer pressure but ‘insecurity’. She adds, however, that ‘striving to be something I wasn’t made me exhausted’ and she started dealing with the stress by drinking two or three glasses of wine at the end of the day. ‘Self-medicating added to the exhaustion, and I slept poorly,’ she says.
The more she tried to be perfect, the less accepted she felt. She recalls a dinner party at another school parent’s barn conversion in which one of the guests said: ‘What’s wrong with this school is that there are too many parents with numbers on their doors.’
Mandy was among them. ‘We live on an estate. We have seven bedrooms and a lovely garden but we don’t have room for a pony,’ she says. ‘I didn’t say anything — maybe I should have. But it made me realise I was being judged for all the wrong reasons.’
It was, she says, a wake-up call, after which she joined a local mother’s group whose members came from diverse backgrounds. She cried as she confided the pressure she’d felt under. ‘The love they gave me was unbelievable,’ says Mandy, who quit the ‘toxic’ PTA, distancing herself from the school mums who prioritised perfection over friendship.
In 2018 an Australian study found that 33 per cent of women in corporate workplaces displayed perfectionism, compared to 21 per cent of men, and that this perfectionism was linked to high rates of self-criticism.
Carol Murdoch suffered two breakdowns before she learned to ditch her perfectionist tendencies — first as a primary school teacher and more recently as a self-employed businesswoman. ‘My perfectionism caused me heartache,’ says Carol, 39, from Linlithgow, in West Lothian, Scotland.
Carol Murdoch, 39, from West Lothian, Scotland, suffered two breakdowns before she learned to ditch her perfectionist tendencies — first as a primary school teacher and more recently as a self-employed businesswoman
Her compulsion to excel was borne of insecurity. Having left school aged 16, Carol worked at a supermarket before going to university as a mature student. ‘I felt like an imposter. I wasn’t the stereotypical teacher from a middle-class background. I felt I had more to prove,’ she says. ‘All teachers do more hours than they should, but I was working 14 hours a day.’
Evenings and weekends were spent marking and lesson planning. ‘I’d be in school for 7.30am. I was exhausted but put on a front and always had a smile,’ she recalls.
Aged 30, after years of living on adrenaline and chocolate — her dress size increased from a size 12 to size 18 — and waking up at 4am worrying, she started to suffer heart palpitations. ‘I told my doctor I was physically not well. He said I was mentally not well because of years of stress,’ she recalls.
After being prescribed anti-anxiety medication and signed off sick for four months, she beat herself up: ‘I felt I was failing the school, the children and my family,’ says Carol, who suffered similar symptoms two years later, requiring another month off work.
Aged 35, she left the profession, after breaking two toes showing her pupils how to jump from one foot to the other — a ‘stupid accident’ Carol saw as symbolic: ‘I realised teaching would break me.’
But as she set up her own tutoring business in 2016, followed by a children’s outdoor learning business in 2017, she heaped more pressure on herself.
‘I’d switch my computer on first thing in the morning and work until I went to sleep. I knew my company’s success was down to me,’ says Carol, who points out: ‘We live in a society where you’re praised if you work yourself into the ground.’ Her husband, Ian, 41, a civil servant, got ‘grumpy’ at her obsession with her work and her friends complained that they never saw her. But it was still three years before Carol took a holiday, and when lockdown forced both her businesses online last spring, her reaction was to work harder. ‘I felt my anxiety coming back. I started to overeat. I took out my stress on my husband and realised I had to change,’ she says.
But recovering from perfectionism can be hard. ‘It’s difficult for women to say, “I don’t want to do this any more,”’ says Sue Tappenden. ‘It takes courage.’
Last summer, Carol hired a business coach, who insisted she take half a day off once every seven days. ‘She’d text “switch the damn computer off.” I hated it at first,’ she admits. ‘I felt I was letting people down.’
Slowly, she extended that half day to a weekend, before spending a week on holiday in a camper van on the west coast of Scotland, with no phone or internet signal. ‘I catastrophised that the business would crumble, and people would complain I was too slow to reply to emails,’ she admits.
But none of her clients did. ‘I realised I didn’t need to be tuned in 24/7,’ says Carol, who now has a work phone she switches off at 7.30pm, and says her turnover has doubled since she recovered from perfectionism: ‘I’m more focused now that I’m not stressed.’
Early in her career, lawyer Helen Hardware, 40, was was brought to the brink of exhaustion pursuing perfection and later in life diagnosed with fibromyalgia — a painful condition that is often prompted by stress
As a junior lawyer in her 20s, Helen Hardware was brought to the brink of exhaustion pursuing perfection, agonising over every task without asking for guidance from seniors.
‘I thought seeking help would be a sign of weakness,’ says Helen, 40, from Doncaster, South Yorkshire. ‘I’m from a working-class background and felt people like me weren’t supposed to be lawyers. I thought I was expected to manage every case perfectly.’ It was only when she quit law, after 15 months, that she found out she had billed over 30 per cent more revenue than was expected of her.
Her next job, as a financial services manager for a bank, triggered similar anxiety. ‘I’d compare myself to high-performing peers who’d been in their job for years,’ says Helen, ‘I was so stressed I woke in the night panicking someone would say I’d done something wrong.’
In 2017 she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia — a painful condition that is often prompted by stress. ‘I felt I’d run a marathon every day and couldn’t think properly or find the right words. I remember describing the television to my husband as “that thing that plays pictures,” ’ recalls Helen.
She retrained as a hypnotherapist and opened her own business in 2019. One afternoon, a potential client she’d sent a promotional email to asked where she’d found their email address.
‘I’d complied with data law but it triggered a fear I’d done something wrong. I felt sick. As a business owner I had to promote myself, but I daren’t do or say anything because I wasn’t perfect and was fearful of judgement.’
In a bid to understand her thought process, Helen used a hypnotherapy technique to resurface childhood memories. They included her practising the flute, violin and piano for three hours a day. ‘Even though I’d had a happy childhood I realised I had started thinking that to be lovable I had to be perfect,’ she says. ‘It was a revelation.’
Having determined what was driving her behaviour, she managed to alter it — and now helps other women do the same.
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