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Author of 'The Perfection Trap,' believes perfectionism is today's hidden epidemic

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

How do you feel about being less than perfect? Well, Thomas Curran, who teaches psychology at the London School of Economics, thinks of perfectionism as today's hidden epidemic.

THOMAS CURRAN: I'm a recovering perfectionist myself, and I think I'll always hold on to a little bit of perfectionism.

MCCAMMON: Curran writes about his own battles with perfectionism in his new book "The Perfection Trap." He told me that the book took him much longer to write than he'd expected because he obsessed over every word.

CURRAN: Perfectionism is really about deficit, about lack, about a sense that we're not good enough, that we're not perfect enough. And deep down, we feel those inadequacies, those flaws, as very personal. They're things that we need to conceal and hide from everyone. And that's a very different starting point to the one I think a lot of people think perfectionism is - this idea, you know, this kind of active, optimistic sense of trying to do excellent things and be an incredible achiever. When you view it through the lens of deficit, then you can really begin to break down some of its more negative tendencies and how it impacts our lives and performances.

MCCAMMON: And something you write about a lot in this book is your own sense of that deficit. Tell us more about how you grew up. How has your background shaped the way that you think about perfectionism?

CURRAN: So I grew up in a small town in the United Kingdom, working-class background. And we didn't have a great deal, and that was something, I think, from a very young age, stayed with me. I know it sounds stupid, but when everyone around you has phones and the best trainers and the trendiest clothes and all the designer labels and all the rest of it, it's just stuff, right? But as a young person, if you don't have that stuff, it really matters. And so I think from a very young age, I learnt the shame of consumer culture that, you know, if you don't have the right items, that there's something wrong with you. There's something embarrassing about that life. And that really carried through me. And I definitely feel like I was overcompensating for that upbringing all the way through my young adult years where I was constantly trying to lift myself above other people, trying as hard as I can not to let that background define me and try to, I guess, elevate myself out of that. And, of course, that meant a lot of pressure.

MCCAMMON: You know, as I hear you talk about competing to have the right clothes or the right shoes, and as I was reading your book, I was thinking a lot about economic inequality. And I wonder when people don't have their basic needs met or struggle to meet their basic needs, how does the idea of perfectionism overlay with those concerns? I mean, does it exacerbate inequality or is there a point at which, you know, perfectionism is kind of an irrelevant consideration if you're just trying to get by?

CURRAN: Well, if we look at what's happening right now, inequality is spiraling out of control. It's really hard for young people in that context because, you know, if you go back to the '40s, '50s and '60s, you had the affluent society, the burgeoning middle class. You know, the average family was celebrated. You know, look at "The Flintstones." Look at "The Jetsons." These were just average families - one income earner with a house and a car in the suburbs. Those days where we celebrated the average family just don't exist anymore.

What we have right now is a very narrow and selective set of professions that gain access into the 1%, and everybody outside of those professions - I'm thinking here tech, medicine, law, finance - are really finding it hard. Their wages aren't growing with inflation. Living standards are deteriorating. And by the way, they're still being told that they should be easily able to attain the same standard of life that their parents had. And they're meeting the world and finding that that's incredibly tough. They're seeing that. They're feeling it. They're experiencing it, and they're internalizing it as a need and a pressure to be perfect.

MCCAMMON: What does your research tell you about the role of perfectionism and, you know, whether or not it actually helps us? Or is there a point at which it hinders us and actually is counterproductive?

CURRAN: So when you actually look at the data, this idea that perfectionism is important to success simply isn't borne out, and the reason for this is twofold. One is because perfectionists do work hard, but they work unsustainably hard. The second reason perfectionists struggle to succeed is more interesting, and that's because they're world-class self-sabotagers. And I'll give you an example from a study that we conducted a few years ago. We brought people into our lab, and we told them to complete a certain distance in a certain amount of time on a bike. And on the first attempt, all of these young people worked extremely hard to try and meet this goal. And then at the end, we told them that you failed. No matter how well you did, you didn't meet that goal. And then we asked them to do it again.

And something really interesting happened. People who weren't particularly perfectionistic didn't really change their effort on the second attempt. If anything, put in a little bit more effort. But the highly perfectionistic people did the opposite. Their effort fell off a cliff because what they were doing is they were trying to preserve their sense of self-esteem by withdrawing themselves from the activity, knowing that the anticipated guilt, shame and embarrassment of that initial failure was so fierce that they simply didn't want to experience it again. And in their minds, you can't fail at something you didn't try. And you see this in all sorts of self-sabotaging behaviors, not just complete withdrawal, but also things like procrastination and avoidance, where perfectionists are pulling themselves away from doing these really difficult tasks because they're managing, essentially, their anxiety of falling short.

MCCAMMON: What are the things we can do in our own lives?

CURRAN: There's a number of different things, but one of the things I focused on in the book is self-acceptance. And I think this is really important for us to recognize that we are imperfect human beings. We're exhaustible creatures, and we're often going to encounter setbacks. We're going to find that there's times in our lives where we're vulnerable. Things are going to happen to us that are completely out of our control, and that's OK. It's about understanding and recognizing that the world is unpredictable and that existing as an imperfect human being inside that world - it's OK to fail. It's OK to show vulnerability. It's OK to push ourselves out into the world, knowing that it might not always go to plan and that we might not reach our goals in the time frame we expected, but that's OK.

MCCAMMON: Thomas Curran is the author of "The Perfection Trap: Embracing The Power Of Good Enough." Thank you so much for your time.

CURRAN: Thank you.

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