Perfectionism, social comparison, and the expectation gap can be considered as the three of the biggest causes of stress, anxiety, and depression. But there are actually some positive components of all three. It’s perfectly fine for you to have some perfectionist tendencies, to engage in some social comparison, and to have some sort of expectations. In moderation, it’s reasonable to have any of the three in your life, but it’s that engaging in too much any of any of these can be negative and have unfortunate consequences, which is where you start to run into problems.
If you have perfectionist tendencies, you’re probably a well-organised, motivated and determined individual with an admirable work ethic and high standards who strives for excellence. These are all great and wonderful components of perfectionism for anyone to have, and they’re traits that you ideally do have. However, it’s the negative aspects of perfectionism that aren’t as desirable.
For example, you might have a fear of failure or a misunderstanding of the role that failure plays in your success. You may set impossibly high standards for yourself, and beat yourself up when you don’t hit those standards time and time again. Because of these fears, you might avoid risks and experience excessive worry. These aspects of perfectionism hinder you from becoming the optimal version of yourself.
Feeling as if you’re never enough leads you to feel anxious, frustrated, and hopeless (as in the case of individuals who suffer from imposter syndrome). But on the other hand, the perspective that there’s still room for improvement leads you to be eager, excited, and hopeful as you strive to achieve new goals. That’s why it’s important for you to set a benchmark for what you consider to be enough, to update your goals regularly, and for you to shift your perspective from seeing failure as something to fear to seeing failure as a useful learning tool.
A major positive of social comparison is that it shows you what’s possible for you to accomplish – if someone else is doing it, then why can’t you as well? Don’t be jealous and envious at the success of others, but rather be inspired by their success because it means you’re capable of being successful too. Allow this inspiration to lead you to take action and make progress on your own goals instead of sitting idle and full of envy. Furthermore, engaging in the occasional act of downward comparison can give you a new perspective and appreciation as you become more grateful for where you presently are with your life.
But on the negative side, you may be comparing yourself to an impossible illusion of perfection without even realising it. Engaging in too much comparison can breed feelings of envy and jealousy, and furthermore you’re wasting time and energy focusing on someone else when you could and should be focusing on yourself. It’s better for you to be obsessed with your own cause and journey, not on the journeys of those around you. Keep your focus on becoming a better version of yourself, as if you’re trying to beat your own high score on a video game.
Both expectations and aspirations are good because they set a standard, and they’re beneficial for when you’re making plans. But considering that your emotions are largely driven by your expectations, they can also lead to feelings of disappointment and anger. You experience a positive burst of emotion when your expectations are met or exceeded, and you experience a negative burst of emotion when expectations are not met. Managing your expectations doesn’t mean settling or lowering your standards, it’s choosing to take control of your happiness and confidence.
A positive of having low or no expectations is that encountering mistakes and problems along the way won’t shock you when it happens. After all, how can you be disappointed if you didn’t have an expectation? Things won’t always go as planned, and just because something you didn’t expect to happen happens doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily bad. All you have to do is adjust your expectations, and be adaptive when the unexpected happens.
High expectations don’t necessarily motivate us, rather they can make us feel guilty when we don’t meet them, which can immobilise and paralyse us as a result. Sometimes rigid expectations hold us back, because we’re perfectionists who tend to procrastinate, so let them go. Not meeting an expectation doesn’t make you inadequate. It means that it just wasn’t right for you at that particular moment. But don’t let this keep you from moving forward. Keep taking action, regardless of how small that action is.
Keep in mind that when it comes down to it, expectations are nothing more than guesses. Sometimes they’re more like a hypothesis, but they’re still far from guarantees. Sometimes you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it, so practise and take ownership of your response habits.
Here’s a generalised list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to perfectionism, social comparison, and expectations:
- Be inspired by those around you, because they can show you what’s possible for you to accomplish
- Take action, be persistent, driven, determined, and motivated
- Have quality standards and strive for excellence
- Work hard and stay organised
- Focus on yourself, your evolution as an individual, and the process itself
- Recognise what is possible
- Be adaptive
- Understand what expectations are right for you right now. Just because you don’t hit your target now doesn’t mean that you never will, it just means that the time wasn’t right for you right now.
- Be grateful and appreciative
- Keep it all in perspective
- Fear failure, because it’s actually a quality learning tool
- Set impossible standards, because you’ll never be satisfied
- Beat yourself up, because you’re more productive when you’re positive and encouraging
- Worry excessively, because it’s a waste of energy
- Focus on others, especially too much, because it’s a waste of focus
- Set yourself up for disappointment
- Only focus on the results, because it takes process to get to the prize
- Become arrogant, because you should be appreciative and confident instead
- Be jealous or envious, because it’s more productive to be inspired and take action
In moderation, there are plenty of great reasons to have some perfectionist tendencies, compare yourself to others, and to have expectations. Although there are some negative aspects to all three if you engage in too much of any of them, you’re capable of being able to practise ideal habits. In order to succeed, we need to have some perfectionism tendencies, some comparison, and some expectations in our life. The key is being able to moderate and balance out the healthy amount that we engage in.
Matthew Buckley is an Organisational Psychologist. He received his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2010, and received his master’s degree in Organisational Psychology with a concentration in Conflict Management from the University of New Haven in 2015. His main areas of interest include career counselling, conflict management, emotional intelligence, employee retention, leadership and management, morale and motivation, personnel selection and recruitment, and self-promotion.