I once lived in an educational hub in India – the little riverside city of Kota, Rajasthan. At 12, it was my first exposure to a horrific productivity culture and its repercussions.
Students would wake up at the crack of dawn for school, reach home late afternoon by around 3:30pm, wolf down lunch in minutes before heading to at least four hours of ‘coaching’ for cut-throat university entrance exams – finally carving out a measly hour or two before midnight for self-study and school homework. Weekends? Exclusively reserved for ‘coaching’ centre tests – sometimes, three hours each.
What about holidays and hobbies? Stigmatised, and seen as kind of an indulgence. This was a sacrifice made for the future, but only worked well for some. As I turned 14 in the city, I remember the horror of reading of someone my age who had committed suicide due to school pressure.
A society striving for the ‘perfect’, often Instagrammable lifestyle
Perfectionism in society has been increasing linearly since the 1980s, as found by a 2019 meta-analysis by UK-based researchers published in the journal Psychological Bulletin that studied around 40,000 Canadian, American and British students over three decades: “Recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.”
Darshita Dhanak, a clinical psychologist at Dubai-based LifeWorks clinic, says, “The trouble is that overachievement and perfectionism as sort of symbolised as hard work – it creates this culture where you feel that you have to strive for that to be taken seriously and be shown as someone who is seen as successful.”
There is this whole idea of – taking a break or not being able to perform is associated with weakness. That only work is related to productivity – if you’re taking breaks, not doing your best, you are not worthy. It is directly correlated to your self-esteem.
– Dr Tulika Shukla, DHA-certified psychiatrist at Millenium Medical Center, Dubai
Settling down for breaks, me-time and hobbies can seem unnecessary – and instead of relaxing guilt-free, you turn to the next means for productivity.
“There is this whole idea of – taking a break or not being able to perform is associated with weakness. That only work is related to productivity – if you’re taking breaks, not doing your best, you are not worthy. It is directly correlated to your self-esteem,” explains Dr Tulika Shukla, DHA (Dubai Health Authority) certified psychiatrist at Millennium Medical Center, Dubai.
What’s worse, social media’s carefully curated, dazzling lifestyles on display only make us feel more pressured into this behaviour – we desire more, in terms of wealth, social status and more.
There’s also this ‘hustle culture’ of no matter your achievements and experiences, scrolling through the lives of others on social media makes people develop anxious and depressive thoughts of having not achieved enough – they respond to this by pushing themselves to be perfect
– Darshita Dhanak, a clinical psychologist at Dubai-based LifeWorks clinic
“There’s this ‘hustle culture’ of no matter your achievements and experiences, scrolling through the lives of others on social media makes people develop anxious and depressive thoughts of having not achieved enough – they respond to this by pushing themselves to be perfect,” adds Dhanak.
Humans and the ‘need to achieve’
As per a 1987 theory on motivation by American psychologist, David McClelland – the McClelland’s Learned Needs theory – the need to achieve is one of the three main motives behind human behaviour. The others are – a need for affiliation, and a need for power.
The pandemic’s impact
Dr Shukla talks of her experience seeing a rise in high-achieving and perfectionist mindsets, “Children who had good academic backgrounds, had very good scores – even with a small disappointment in one test, or one standard especially during COVID-19 when they had lost structure and their performance had fallen, they had become distressed by this.
“I also recently saw a lot of people coming with burnout – and the most striking characteristic is that they have high-performance traits, and don’t want to accept that they have burnout. They are looking outside for answers, and don’t want to introspect, to think, ‘you’re working too much, you need to slow down’.” A recent 2021 report by Indeed, an international employment website, found that more than half of surveyed employees (52 per cent) reported feeling burnt out – up 6 per cent from pre-COVID levels.
Society thinks that the younger generation are over-indulged, that it’s an overly sensitive generation – but on the contrary, young people hold irrational ideals and excessive standards for themselves.
– Darshita Dhanak, a clinical psychologist at Dubai-based LifeWorks clinic
Dhanak adds that in her work, she sees such mindsets common amongst the youth. “Society thinks that the younger generation are over-indulged, that it’s an overly sensitive generation – but on the contrary, young people hold irrational ideals and excessive standards for themselves. This manifests into unrealistic expectations, these could be of how they look, what kind of experiences they should be having….” She references a 2021 World Health Organization report that found an increase in youth suffering from depression and anxiety.
Defining perfectionism within hustle culture
“Perfectionism is a set of self-defeating thought patterns which push a person to achieve unrealistic goals that they may falsely believe to be attainable,” says Dr Abdul Salman Challil, clinical psychologist at NMC hospital.
But it’s important to keep in mind that there are two types of perfectionism – maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism. “Both have high personal standards. But, once when they fail to meet those standards, it becomes more stressful for maladaptive than adaptive perfectionists,” adds Dr Challil.
That makes the difference. Dhanak says, “There’s nothing wrong with aiming for something to be perfect, but it is our reaction to when things don’t go perfectly that is the most important.”
Both have high personal standards. But, once when they fail to meet those standards, it becomes more stressful for maladaptive than adaptive perfectionists.
– Dr Abdul Salman Challil, clinical psychologist at NMC hospital
• Adaptive perfectionists – this is considered a healthy type of perfectionism, where you’re happy with good achievements from intense effort but don’t harshly berate yourself if you fail.
• Maladaptive perfectionists – Dr Shukla explains that this is when perfectionism involves harsh self-criticism and hinders your task completion itself, such as when you obsess endlessly over small details and fail to submit a report on time.
“Even though perfectionism has advantages but the desire to excel and desire to be perfect at any cost, brings unhealthy mental health issues to people like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders,” says Dr Challil.
Dr Shukla adds, “People with perfectionism have an inflated sense of responsibility, catastrophism, cognitive distortion. Children are really inept at handling this – I have also seen a lot of perfectionism around their looks, and I’m seeing children with eating disorders, body-weight related issues.”
7 steps to a healthier mindset
Here’s a guide to combating toxic productivity as well as perfectionist mindset:
1. Make it a habit to think of kind, self-accepting statements
Dr Challil says, “Practice replacing self-critical or perfectionistic thoughts with more realistic and helpful statements like ‘this is okay’, ‘it’s okay to not be happy always’, ‘everyone will have a bad day too sometimes’.”
2. Redefine your success and productivity to include aspects of your personal life
“People have correlated their productivity to their self-esteem so if due to any factors – whether personal, or maybe the market is down, if you are not able to bring results you feel that you are not worthy,” says Dr Shukla.
“But, there are so many other aspects of you that contribute to your self-esteem – how kind you are, how approachable you are – how much do you take care of yourself, your family, the needs of people around you. These are also important aspects of your personality that you should focus on,”
3. Use cognitive restructuring techniques to be more self-aware
“For reducing cognitive errors they can learn cognitive restructuring strategies also,” says Dr Challil. This is part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and can help you understand and change your attitudes in certain situations.
• In the moment, reflecting on your thought process: “Being aware that I am a person that looks at what is bad in the situation first, and then consciously focus on what is good in this situation will give you a realistic perspective,” says Dr Shukla.
• Maintaining a diary or record of when this happens: Dr Shukla recommends maintaining a diary of when perfectionism caused too much distress or hindered your tasks, and reflecting: ‘Do you think there is an alternative thing that can be done here?’.
4. Don’t think in black or white
“Redefining progress as not black and white but a gradation is also a way in which perfectionism can be curbed,” says Dr Shukla. Instead of focusing on results, whether it was a checklist success or fail – zero in on what you’ve learnt from the activity and the steps taken forward.
5. Admit it if you need a break
“Perfectionists don’t want to be seen as weak or unable – they see themselves as problem solvers, and not being part of the problem,” says Dhanak.
“Recalibrate these goals and expectations that you should be a machine – that’s not realistic, we all need to spend time with our near and dear ones,” adds Dr Shukla.
6. Try new things to put yourself in a vulnerable situation
“Try new things, go out of your comfort zone – and by doing this you are exposing yourself to these situations where you can fail,” says Dhanak. “You think – it’s okay to have never done this, it’s okay to be bad at it.”
7. Helping others
Dhanak explains that often with perfectionism, there is a sense of being focused on our self. Dhanak says, “The point is that when you help others, you take yourself less seriously – it forces you to put your life in this perspective, and think about the world.
“The key is to be human, not to be perfect – and it is important to be open to change and accept those vulnerability and imperfections.”