Overcoming perfectionism to live a life of joy, purpose and meaning
Thomas Curran | Psychologist, London School of Economics
BY PETER BOWES | WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 4, 2023
Should we be striving to live a perfect life or is it more realistic to aim for one that’s “good enough?” Thomas Curran is an assistant professor of psychology at the London School of Economics and the author of The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough. He argues that a modern-day pandemic of “perfectionism” is putting people under extreme pressure to be the best they can, at everything. Prof. Curran says social pressures have resulted in us losing perspective on what it takes to be happy and fulfilled. Social media images of people seemingly living perfect lives distort reality and are leading to an unhealthy wave of dissatisfaction with our lives. In this interview we explore the implications for those of us pursuing a long life, where healthspan is the goal, rather than lifespan.
Video highlight below – full audio interview at top of page
Topics covered in this conversation include:
- The flawed view that perfectionism is a positive trait and why it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
- How pressure to be perfect is felt in areas like careers, relationships, and personal appearance.
- How social media and societal expectations intensify the pressure to be perfect.
- Why self-compassion is a tool in combating perfectionism.
- How accepting flaws and being kind to oneself helps overcome perfectionistic tendencies.
- The role of class structure plays in perfectionism with different pressures for different social classes.
- How self-care and moderation can be applied to the pursuit of longevity
- Longevity aspirations – are we trying to live too long?
- Achieving more happiness through joy, contentment, and purpose
Earlier LLAMA conversation: Are we trying too hard to live perfect lives? – published March 4, 2019
This episode is brought to you in association with Clinique La Prairie, the award-winning spa-clinic and pioneering health and wellness destination, nestled on the shores of Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. Combining preventative medicine with bespoke lifestyle and nutrition plans, Clinique La Prairie offers a holistic approach to living fuller, healthier and longer lives.
TRANSCRIPT – This conversation with Phil Simha was recorded on August 31, 2023 and transcribed using Sonix AI. Please check against audio recording for absolute accuracy.
Peter Bowes: Thom, welcome back to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast.
Thomas Curran: Thank you Peter. It’s great to talk to you again.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, good to talk to you. And I say welcome back because we have chatted about this subject before back in 2018 in Palm Springs, in California. You write about it – the experience in your book, speaking, delivering a talk at the TED conference, which is going on then. And if anyone wants to go back, it’s episode 91 on the podcast. You’ll get some of the background as to what Thom is talking about, but you cover much of what is in the talk in the book, and there are plenty of new thoughts as well. And I want to delve into that with you, Thom. But maybe first of all, that Palm Springs or La Quinta experience, to be precise, a little enclave further out of Palm Springs. You write about it in the book and you introduce everyone in your talk to what you describe as everyone’s favorite flaw – perfectionism. That’s what you write about in the book, but you also write about the experience of being at a TED conference, and you talk about the venue. A dreamland of manicured perfection kind of made me smile when I read that, because I also felt a little bit like a fish out of water being in that kind of setting. How was it for you?
Thomas Curran: Very, very strange feeling coming from a different world with less experience of these kind of settings, particularly in a US context as well, where everything is on overdrive, so to speak. It’s all about the pristine nature of the resort, the kind and welcoming that you get from the staff, the effervescence that you get from the delegates and the and the people who are organizing the TED event. It’s all an amplification, I suppose, of what you typically experience as an academic going to conferences. And it’s very new, it’s very strange and very surreal. And so a lot of those experiences have stayed with me when I was reflecting on my own perfectionism in the book as, as things that I struggled a little bit to to deal with, it was on top of all the pressure of delivering a talk. You’re now in this new world where you don’t quite feel like you belong and everybody is sort of speaks almost a different language. And you are mistaken for somebody who is a support worker rather than a speaker on a couple of occasions. So that also didn’t help my nerves. And it was really just just one of those experiences where I’ll never forget it totally new. I probably will never go through it again. It taught me a lot actually, about myself. It taught me a lot about my perfectionism and how it impacts me in new situations, new contexts where I don’t feel like I quite belong, if that makes sense.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, it does make sense. It is quite a big I mean, you frame it like that, I think because it is actually quite or it’s seen as being quite a big deal to deliver a TED talk. It’s something that stays with you, stays with everyone because it is up there for you to go warts and all, for people to go and review. Many years later, I was fascinated by the whole process and your talk was on the final afternoon. I remember. Standing at the back of the hall and just watching it and having already interviewed you for this podcast. So I knew in advance some of the content, but my thought at the end of it was you did good. I mean, the guy nailed it. It was a good talk. I imagine extremely nerve wracking in that kind of setting to deliver. But what interests me and you write about in this book is that you weren’t entirely satisfied with how it went. It wasn’t so much your own performance, but it was the audience reaction.
Thomas Curran: There’s all sorts of there’s all sorts of things you worry about. And you go back to I mean, you were right – I was on the last day. And what you get to do at these events is you get to watch everything else unfold. And the very first talk of the Ted conference really stayed with me because it was just perfect, flawless, incredible talk. The probably the best talk I’ve seen. If you were to ask me to recall like what the content was or who even who even gave it, I couldn’t tell you. But I just remember it being just completely flawless. And that’s how you know, that’s how you open a conference. And the person delivering that talk clearly knew what they were doing. But of course, when you’re coming in and this is such a big event and you see that, you instantly make a comparison that, you know, you can never live up to that, that you just can’t. There’s no way that in three days you can get yourself to a position where you’re giving that same level of engagement and enthusiasm and to be met at the end with raucous, rapturous applause. It’s just it’s just not going to happen. So you feel very you instantly feel in comparison that this is not going to go well anyway as the ebb and flow goes. You you do you do recognize and see that actually, you know, not everyone talks quite as good as that, but still the level is high and it comes to your time to go and nothing really prepares you. There’s a very enthusiastic, sweet words of encouragement from people backstage, but as a sort of introverted Brit, that’s not really the the preparation I needed. But nevertheless, I was thrust on stage and then and then all I remember is, is just giving the 15 minute talk. Everything you prepare because they give you a speech writers and they show you how you know, they give you an acting coach, show you the body language and how to talk and when to emphasize and how to move your hands. And all the rest of it. Goes from your mind. Might as well have not taught me those things. Might as well have not invested in those people to teach you those people, because it instantly goes from, you know, none of that matters in that moment. All that matters is you get it to the end. So I did get to the end and I finished and in my mind there was a nice polite applause and then ushered off stage. And of course, the reaction wasn’t quite the raucous reception that other speakers had got. So I kind of left in my mind that this was kind of okay. It wasn’t really that great a talk, and I knew in my bones that it really wasn’t that great at all because I hadn’t applied any of the any of the help and support and suggestions that had been given. So, you know, and I also thought in my mind, weirdly, like I’d forgotten a couple of lines I could convince myself. And the problem is you can’t see the talk back. So that’s the thing. Like the the first time you see it is when it’s head of released it to their millions of followers. So so that was also on my mind too. Like I couldn’t tell whether like how I’d done because there was no way to instantly know apart from my own anxieties and my own worries about it. So I ruminated a lot. I worried about it a lot. And the reason why I wrote about it, about that, that those feelings in my book is because I’m myself am a perfectionistic person and those types of moments in our lives teach us something really important about ourselves when we’re putting those situations, how we manage it, how we cope. Because some people can just fly like the first speaker, but other people like me are very much more worried about how we’re going to look. And our main motivation really is not to screw up. That’s the most important thing. It’s not to make a really successful erudite talk, but it’s actually don’t capitulate in this moment. Get through just get it done. And then you can breathe a sigh of relief. Yeah, those are the psychology, that’s the experience. And I wanted to bring that to I really wanted to write about that in the book because I think a lot of people feel those things too. I hear a lot of my students friends, people who are petrified of doing things publicly, whether it be a talk or whether it be a project even, you know, whether it be like something simple, like hosting a meeting or chairing a meeting or organizing an event. Like it’s just little things. But we feel because it’s such a public thing to do, we feel very nervous about screwing up. And so I wanted really to bring that experience into the book to show that that’s normal. A lot of people feel that, and if you’re high on perfectionism, you’re likely to feel those things very intensely.
Peter Bowes: I’m wondering if you have had a different reaction to pretty much the same talk, but with a different audience. So in other words, the perhaps, as you saw it, a sort of muted reception from a Ted. Audience. Has that been different to your experience with other audiences essentially saying the same thing? And where I’m going with this is, is there something about the character, the demographics or whatever of that very specific audience that affected their opinions on the subject that you were talking about? And maybe there was an element of disagreement amongst the audience with what they heard from you?
Thomas Curran: I am not sure. It’s really difficult to compare and contrast because I do talks all the time. I give lectures on a weekly basis and to students and often I’m asked to do talks to organizations. There’s something about the TED experience that everything about it, it just ramps it up so, so high. You know, and every talk I give, actually I still have nerves, but that was like unreal. So, you know, like just because it’s so important, you know, it’s going to be viewed by so many people. And, you know, people are going to have opinions. You know, they’re going to feed back. There’s going to be comments underneath the video that some are good, some are bad. You know, you just know that this is a really big thing. Whereas for those other events, the only people that are going to see it really are the cohort that you’re doing it to. So the the nerve levels are not quite as high and the reception that you get from them is more akin to what you would expect in those settings, because what you’re there really to do is educate and inform. But I think the TED talk is really about educating, informing and entertaining. Like there’s an extra third element to the TEDx talk, which is which is very unique and different to what you would do in other contexts. So, you know, when you’re when you’re lecturing or you’re giving talks, firms like that’s fine because you’re there to impart information and hopefully most of the time people take really, you know, some useful learnings away. But yeah, that entertainment element, that third one, which requires, by the way, things like creativity, confidence, being able to be kind of spontaneous on stage and let the let the event lead you in certain ways. Let the audience feed off the audience. All these things that you need to be agile and perfectionistic. People just are unable to do that. They have to be very rigid and think very straight and narrow terms of what do I need to do to get to the end? And everything else kind of melts away. So it’s that it’s that part of the TED talk that I think is most intimidating. And that’s why I think I had difficulty accepting that actually it was good enough, even though at the time I thought it, I thought it wasn’t. Looking back, I can reflect and understand it was good enough talk, but at the time I really didn’t think that at all.
Peter Bowes: And I guess that’s the hallmark of a perfectionist to some extent. You also write in your book that you, with the passage of time, are not particularly happy with the title of the talk, which was our Dangerous Obsession with Perfection. You’d have rather labeled it in a different way.
Thomas Curran: Well, I did have a little bit of input, but not not a great deal. So a lot of the title was really picked for me in some ways. But nevertheless, you know, it was passed by you. I could have made adjustments if I really pushed for them. I didn’t choose to at the time. But as you say, thinking about perfectionism now, over the last few years, doing a lot of work in this area, it’s become evident to me that this isn’t really our obsession, that that kind of puts the emphasis on us as individuals to to figure out what’s wrong with us and why we’re so obsessed with perfection. But really, actually, this is a societal problem, a cultural affliction that if we want to understand both where it comes from and how we overcome it, we have to take a little bit of a broader lens and look at what’s happening over broader in broader society that’s creating those pressures to be perfect, that people are young people in particular, but people in general are internalizing and interpreting the need and desire to be perfect.
Peter Bowes: Well, the talk has been, I think I’m correct in saying viewed more than 3 million times last time I checked, what difference giving that talk has it made to you and to your career?
Thomas Curran: Oh, of course. Like a massive, massive difference. Without the TED talk, it didn’t wouldn’t have been able to write the book. And without the book, I don’t get to talk to people like yourself about the issues surrounding perfectionism and my perspective on where it comes from. And without those things, there is no warning. There is no mythbusting I think left to its own devices, perfectionism will continue to be disguised concealed as a positive trait in broader culture, and we wouldn’t have been able to talk about the negative parts of it and how actually what we think is something that holds us up in the world, something that makes us successful or is actually no such thing. And so it’s been incredibly important in that respect. And I hope that through the TED Talk and hopefully through the book, we can start to have meaningful conversations about what perfectionism really is and what it really does to us.
Peter Bowes: So let’s put TED to one side and go back to, I guess, the basic the fundamental principles behind your thinking in terms of perfectionism. “Everyone’s favorite flaw”is the way that you have introduced it. Could you explain again what you’re getting at there? This is something that people will often say about themselves when they’re trying to promote themselves.
Thomas Curran: Yeah, I start my TEDTalk off with more or less the same quote that I start my book off in that we have in modern society a begrudging admiration for perfectionism. I think we know, don’t we, that it has this negative baggage that can at some level make us feel not enough insecure and all the rest of it. But on the other hand, those anxieties and worries actually drive us forward, that they’re the things that make us successful. And if it wasn’t for perfectionism, then we wouldn’t be able to lift ourselves above all sorts of other people in the world at work, sports, media, whatever it is that we’re trying to whatever context is we’re trying to achieve. And without that intense inner drive, we don’t think we’re going to get there. So that’s why we tell our interviewers that our biggest weakness is perfectionism, because we think that’s the socially desirable weakness, the weakness that we’re so much better for having. As I say, this is something we see everywhere. You know, I tried in the book talk about it not just as a person level, but in broader culture too. I was particularly struck when, for instance, I traveled through the Queens terminal in Heathrow. On the way to the TED Talk, there is a cafe called the Perfectionist Cafe. And then you look around you at the billboards and the advertising screens and everything has this kind of pristine, flawless image of a perfect life and lifestyle that we could have if we looked a certain way, bought a certain product, it subscribed to a certain service. And so out there right now in broader culture is an intense radiation, I think of perfect lives, perfect lifestyles, perfect people, the one 0.1%, the unicorn achievers, these are the people we platform. These are the people we celebrate. These are the people we chat to on podcasts and documentaries and write movies about and all the rest of it. And that for me really is is the crux of this obsession with perfection in modern society. You know, we just celebrate these unrealistic ideals to the extent that everybody in all around us seems to be looking at them, interpreting them and finding them, not only are they desirable us to say that I want to be like that, but it’s some level that it’s something eminently obtainable if we just apply ourselves. And that’s the danger that when we try to shoot for perfection, we try to shoot for these unrealistic ideals and ultimately fall short. That’s when you start to see the problems.
Peter Bowes: And you. And just to illustrate this point, you refer to a number of celebrities in your book. You quote from a few. I’ll just mention one. Michelle Pfeiffer, referring to herself as a perfectionist. She says, “I think that’s one of the reasons I’m successful because I really care about what I do.” And there are many, many other examples of celebrities and I guess amplified through social media these days of living the perfect life. And that is for many people and especially younger people. That is the crux of the problem, isn’t it, that they are aspiring or we are aspiring as a people to be like these icons of perfectionism to a point that really very, very few of us can rise, that we can’t live those lives.
Thomas Curran: Yeah. Nassim Taleb did a really interesting analysis recently, used the context of sports, but I think it applies to all all contexts. And he calculated that in order to make it to the very top of any discipline in this case sport, you need to be a Six Sigma individual. So by the way, these are the people that we platform, right? These people at the very top six single individuals, six standard deviations away from the mean 1 in 1 point 4 million people will make it into that elite bracket. Look, it’s not saying that you can’t get there. Of course you can. But the chances are so slim and require, by the way, things to happen that are completely out of your control, like being in the right social circumstances, meeting the right people, having the right connections. If you’re an athlete, having the genes that give you all sorts of physical attributes that mean you’ll be successful in a certain sport, you know, there are things that we just cannot control that are also important to that success. But if all we see is the tip of the iceberg and all we see here is people describing how their perfectionism has driven us to has led them to the top, when actually other factors were more important. Then we’re going to think ourselves we need to hold those tendencies to. And by celebrating those unicorn achievers, all we’re really doing is giving people a very warped sense of what’s achievable and what’s normal, I suppose. So I think that’s part of the problem for sure.
Peter Bowes: And what’s interesting to me is, is very often when some of these high, high achievers get into trouble, they fall off the their pedestal, they do something wrong, they do something bad. And there’s that mea culpa moment there’s that apology on television, often the word perfection / perfectionist comes into the the statement that they issue. I’m not a perfect person. No one is. So there is that acknowledgment, isn’t there, when in a really sticky moment, people have to think about what they’ve done and acknowledge that even they are not perfect.
Thomas Curran: Absolutely. And I think that’s part of the problem, actually, in modern society, that we hold high profile figures up to such a high bar that once they fail or fall short or in some way make mistakes, that we’re ready to pounce very quickly and blame them when really what we should be trying to do is explain. We should explain more and blame less and try to understand why it was that people were put in those situations, made those mistakes or did the wrong thing. I think that’s so, so important. And look, you know, after that process, we might still conclude that these people are beyond the pale and should be condemned or whatever. We can make that judgment. It does speak to how how excessively expectant we are for people, particularly people in the public eye, to hold such an unrealistic levels of behavior or conduct. And I think it behooves us really to try to, as I say, rather than pointing the finger instantly and reacting. Try to understand why it was that people were put in those situations, why they made those mistakes and trying to apply a little bit more compassion than we than we currently do. Because if we because if we continue the way we’re doing, then everybody’s going to put up a shield of perfection. They’re never going to admit that they were wrong or to their mistakes. They’re going to try and bluster and push through. And that’s not a healthy way to engage in political debate or reflect on a poor athletic performance or whatever context it’s in. I think sometimes it’s better to be very human, but you’re very vulnerable and accept that we make mistakes and be allowed to do that. I think that’s really important.
Peter Bowes: Since we’ve spoken before, it was 2018, social media has developed. There have been new sites, some sites have gone out of fashion. And in your book you give quite a nice historic perspective in terms of how we use social media from the early days of Facebook. Nice platform just to talk to your friends, to exchange messages. And we all know how Facebook has developed. We know its reputation. There’s Instagram now and myriad other sites as well. Is social media getting it in terms of its responsibility or are things still exploding out of control? Which side of the seesaw are we on?
Thomas Curran: Well, social media is a really interesting one because I actually think social media has so much human value. I mean, when you think about what it was originally designed to do, it was designed to connect us, to connect us around common interests and causes, to bring us together in our communities, to organize offline events, to get together and figure out where we’re going to meet at a certain time in a certain place. And it’s morphed into this online world now where the imperative is to keep people online, not offline, to continually have them scrolling through the platforms and at various intersections, feeding them targeted advertisements. And by the way, this is no different to, you know, television or traditional analog forms of advertising. You know, you’re watching a football game and then in the in the mid-term break, you’re bombarded with advertisements telling you about what’s wrong and material solutions to fix them. No different except social media as a form of media is with us 24 / 7. So the big difference, the big difference here is that it’s everywhere now. Wherever we go, we’re followed by these limitless images of perfect lives people living, you know, extravagant luxury lifestyles, looking perfect and having the perfect, uh, I don’t know, family, having the perfect, um, uh, life and lifestyle. And of course, you know, that’s that’s a lot, you know, that’s a lot for particularly young people to be exposed to. And I think we’re seeing in a lot of the data that young people are struggling with that we’re seeing in Meta or Facebook’s own data. Actually, the young people have struggled with that. And and, you know, I think it is certainly part of the if we want to understand why perfection, rising social media is certainly a big piece. But I think it’s the it doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a parts of social media that can be incredibly useful. It can be incredibly valuable. It’s just that the, you know, the imperative for social media companies, just like any other company, is to grow, to generate revenues. And the way they do that is through advertising. And and so it’s in their in their interest to continually to instill in a sense of deficit, a sense of lack into which, you know, consumption thrives. And that’s no different. I have to reiterate to any other forms of advertising that occur in any other forms of media. Um, the difference, as I mentioned, is it’s just with us all the time.
Peter Bowes: You write in the book. That self-compassion is probably one of the best tools to help us lead a more contented life, perhaps to draw us away from the the social media that is pulling us in one direction. What do you mean by self-compassion?
Thomas Curran: Self-compassion is really the biggest single antidote to perfectionistic thinking, because perfectionists will worry all the time about how they’re looking, how they’re appearing, particularly in public areas. Right. And and if there’s any chink in the armor that’s revealed, that kind of reveals a imperfect, flawed self that deep down we know exists, but that we’re trying to disguise and conceal from everyone and all around us. Once those defects and flaws are revealed, then we’re exceptionally self-critical because that that’s shown the world now that actually we’re not this perfect person that we’re trying to project into the world, that we’re trying to just live perfect life, perfect life style, appearance, job, family, whatever it is. The image that we’re trying to manage into the world. Once that gets, once that, you know, once any, any form of vulnerability or flaw is exposed, we feel intensely self-conscious and we go in on ourselves. So the most important thing to do in those situations when we don’t feel like we’ve succeeded or we feel like we’ve met some kind of shortcoming or exposed some kind of flaw is to be kind and to show compassion for ourselves in those situations that we are an imperfect human being. Everybody is imperfect and nobody can be made perfect. And so when we do make mistakes and slip up, that’s just natural, normal, inevitable. And instead of asking, so how can we be so stupid telling ourselves it’s okay, You know, it’s there’s always next time. And this isn’t as catastrophic as perhaps your perfectionism would tell you it is. That there’s a learning opportunity that we can perhaps use this maybe for growth. Not all the time, but sometimes, and there’this failure hasn’t ruined our future. It hasn’t, you know, it hasn’t exposed to everyone how flawed we are. That, that actually, you know, we’ve got people around us who love us, um, who accept us for who we are. And that’s the most important thing. And you have to keep telling yourself that. You have to keep telling yourself that almost treat yourself like you treat a friend who has slipped up themselves, that kind of kindness and compassion is so, so important. And if you can do that, if you can get into the habit of doing that when things haven’t gone quite so well, it’s like taking a sledgehammer to your perfectionism because it really cuts out that inner critic. that is one of the reasons why perfection is so problematic for our mental health.
Peter Bowes: I in the introduction pose the question or at least raise the issue of I guess what is at the center of this podcast that we aspire to live long and healthy lives. This isn’t a podcast about living forever. This isn’t really about – I don’t really like the phrase of reversing aging or, you know, going backwards – it’s a forward looking, chronological, aging podcast, but the goal is to be as healthy as long as possible. Healthspan is the is the buzzword as opposed to lifespan. So you’re healthy and physically and mentally able to do what you can for as long as possible. Is that do you think you’ve made me think about it? Is that a flawed idea, a flawed ambition? Should I settle for good enough, which might be 85 rather than 95?
Thomas Curran: No, I don’t think it’s a flawed ambition at all. I think it’s really important. Ambition, you know, longevity, health, happiness, joy. These are all things that I think are really important for human beings. As long as, of course, it’s within our capacity. That’s to say it doesn’t breach a threshold as comfortable. One of the beautiful things about human beings, we are all different. We all have different tendencies, characteristics, genes and all the rest of it. And what is longevity for one person will be very different to another person. And I think one of the most important things to recognize is that the most important thing in life is to experience as much joy, contentment, purpose, meaning as you possibly can. And if that and the byproduct of that, of course, is more happiness, less stress, and in theory anyway, more longevity. But, nevertheless, for me, what’s most, you know, and what I try and write about in the book is, is trying to find more and more times in our lives where we can experience joy and whether that be in with our, in our communities, with our families. singing, dancing, playing music, whatever it is we enjoy cooking,taking our kids to the playground, going on a family vacation, going on a traveling to another country, whatever it might be that provides you with purpose and joy and meaning is really, really important. And if you happen to also be able to do that, like like I can with my job, that’s even better. That’s where true, where true joy and happiness comes from. And the byproduct of that is a is, as I said, a less stressful, less exhausting, less, worrying life, I suppose. And ultimately more longevity. But I wouldn’t say like that. What you’re, what you’re advocating for here is, is problematic at all. As long as it’s comfortable and within, you know, as I say, within, it doesn’t breach any, it doesn’t drive us crazy trying to reach it, if that makes sense.
Peter Bowes: I think that’s the point. And just to be clear, I don’t think it’s a flawed ambition as well. And I think you’ve actually very nicely just encapsulated there all the different elements that go into leading a good life. And if the spin off from all of that is a long life as well, well, that is perhaps to the greater good. And it’s interesting talking to people interviews for this podcast. One of the reasons that people give for living a long life is to share their rare wisdom and to share their longevity with their children, with their grandchildren. You mentioned children as well. And it’s the family. It is the playtimes. It’s the holidays, it’s the the big picture. And I think perhaps if there is an element of what we’re talking about here, where I would perhaps suggest that people could maybe pull back a little bit, and that is in the extreme diets, the extreme exercise that, you know, may not add much in terms of years to your life, but it could actually potentially add quite a lot of stress along the way. So I like to use the phrase moderation in everything is probably the best thing that we can do.
Thomas Curran: Oh, it’s so important Peter. Like you see this all the time right now because as as I mentioned at the beginning, we elevate and amplify and platform those extreme cases. So people that have managed to, you know, find the secret to elongated life that comes from these kind of weird and wacky, practices that just when you look at them and you actually think, goodness me, I’m going to have to do all these things just to eke out a few extra years, I’m not sure. I’m not sure that’s going to make me happy. It might make me live longer, but it’s certainly not going to make me happy. So but again, you’re absolutely right when you talk about moderation, too, and this is something we need to learn in modern society, perfectionism is really just an extreme way to strive, just like pursuing, as I mentioned in the very last chapter of the book, just like pursuing growth, growth, growth at all costs and pushing ourselves to the nth degree, pushing down at all times on the accelerator is again, a very extreme way to try to drive an economy. That’s not to say that economies don’t won’t grow, but if we try to get as much growth as we possibly can in the shortest possible time, there’s going to be there’s going to be implications for our health and happiness as a population. And sometimes our economy gets to a point where there isn’t much more growth that can come from that. Secularly, we slow down and if we continue to try and push forward and we’re going to squeeze people relentlessly for more work, more consumption, for not much more increase in their living standards. And in fact, we’re starting to see living standards decline now for most for the middle classes whilst still trying to pursue this kind of growth at all costs approach. And I think so moderation, yes, on an individual level. But I also think as a society too, we need to have a discussion about moderation and what a thriving economy, what a thriving country looks like. So I know I’ve taken that off in a very different direction, but I just wanted to reinforce that idea of moderation because I think it’s so, so important.
Peter Bowes: You mentioned middle classes there, and there are quite a few references in your book to different attitudes from the class structure of our societies. And like you, I consider myself to be from a working class, a working class family in the north east of England. I have put my toe into lots of different classes of society around the world. Some I like, some I don’t like. But from your perspective and diving into this subject, what differences do you see if you’re looking at the class structures in societies and maybe in different countries as well, what differences do you see in attitudes both positive and negative?
Thomas Curran: It depends. It depends what you mean by attitude, attitudes to what?
Peter Bowes: Attitudes that affect our perfectionism, attitudes that fuel our ambitions to achieve things or not necessarily to achieve things and to be to be happy with good enough.
Thomas Curran: Yeah. Really Good. That’s okay. Really good question. So there’s two – for me from my vantage point and we’ve got no data to support this, by the way. But I just talk about my lived experience because I think it’s so, so, so important. Two reasons. One, because I think it’s important readers know whether where the author comes from. We work in the social sciences. And what I’m saying comes from a very particular perspective, and I want you to know that. But it’s not just that. It’s also because perfectionism can impact on people in different ways depending on their social circumstances and environments. And those environments are very different from different people, from different backgrounds or different classes in, in where I grew up, very, very poor in working class community. One of the things that we use to mark our status was with material goods, things like trainers and gadgets and toys and clothes and brands. And as we grew up, cars and these are stupid things, right? They’re just things. They’re just stuff. But if you don’t have them, that can have a massive impact on the way that you feel about yourself. It’s quite embarrassing to not be able to afford Nike trainers when everyone else has them or not be able to be bought a car by your parents when everyone else has bought them. These are very these are things that teach you very early on that there’s something wrong. You know, consumer culture teaches us that life is all about stuff and money. And if you don’t have it, there’s something wrong with you. And you really feel that as a young kid, you know, you don’t have the privilege of time and education and reflection to realize that not that’s not real. You actually feel very intently self-conscious. And those feelings of lack and deficit, I think are very much instilled in me from a young age because of not having the stuff that other people had, particularly in a, you know, in a consumer culture, in a material sense. Now the middle class and upper classes have a slightly different but no less weighty pressures that come from excessive needs to excel and achieve in, in measures that’s just completely unrealistic. And I see this now as a professor in a university that takes almost exclusively kids from those sorts of backgrounds. And it’s so, you know what I’ve witnessed from this outpost really is shocking in terms of the amount of pressure and tension that young people are under to achieve and excel Like, you know, they come to university bound with tension and worries about not being good enough, not achieving in equal measure and even even objectively high grades for them are decidedly disappointing because they put themselves and hold themselves to such a high standard. And some of them can’t even open their grade books here for fear that the grade is going to ruin their chances of a perfect future. And that’s you know, that sounds extreme, but it’s not. You know, I’m seeing this increasingly in my students that they’re just petrified to to find out what they scored because one bad grade and they know how they know how disastrous that could be. And the way that they’re going to feel about that in terms of their guilt and shame and embarrassment and all the rest of it. So I mentioned class because I think class does have an impact and it means that our perfectionism expresses slightly differently, but the pressures are and nevertheless, underneath them are the same the feeling of not being good enough, the feeling not having enough and not being enough of not, um, not performing or achieving or having or doing or being somebody that’s quite up to a standard. Um, and so, yes, you know, there are, there are certain pressures that may be slightly different between the classes. But nevertheless the, the constant need and imperative to do more is certainly felt across the beast.
Peter Bowes: This is quite a personal book in many respects. You’ve acknowledged your perfectionism and you talk about your own personal experiences. You talk about relationships that you’ve had. I’m just curious, how easy or difficult was that for someone of your personality? You describe yourself as an introvert. I think I would probably describe myself as an introvert. We’re both doing very public things in our profession. But for the private you, was it easy, difficult to put these thoughts onto paper?
Thomas Curran: No, it wasn’t easy, but I think it was nevertheless essential. The thing when I’m when I read a lot of these books written by scientists and people who work in academic settings, they’re really informative, but sometimes they can be a little lacking in personal experience and story. Being able to connect the themes with what’s actually happening in people’s lives. And that disconnect makes it really difficult to understand what’s happening when it comes to the effects of perfectionism on our psychology. And so the person that I know best is myself. And one of the things that’s so damaging about perfectionism is that it interacts with life stress in ways that can amplify that stress and create all sorts of psychological problems and sometimes quite serious psychological problems. And that’s exactly what happened to me in the literature. We call this a stress diathesis model of perfectionism, where perfectionism interacts with life stress to amplify it. Now, of course, if I talk about that in the book, it’s quite dry like, you know, and it could go that approach. But I think most people aren’t necessarily going to come with me for the journey. So what I decided to do is a difficult decision, but was to explain this theory through the, you know, how it worked out in my own life. And I talk about a very difficult, experience, in early relationship, which really had a massive impact on my mental health. And, and I tried to explain in the book that it wasn’t that particular experience per se that created the difficulty, but actually the perfectionism. So the one of the things that we do when we perfectionist push ourselves to the limit, because that’s a natural tendency to try to perfect and control everything and all around them, which is fine. But when things go wrong, when stresses come into our lives that are out the blue completely out of our control, we didn’t expect, then they can begin to snowball and cascade because what we’ve what’s happened is some chink in the armor has been exposed. We feel intensely self-conscious and to overcompensate for that, we work even harder. We put in even we put in even stronger facade on. And we tried to continue to push through the stress and the pain when really we should be slowing down and over time, left unchecked, that imperative of the perfectionist to keep pushing through, to use their perfectionism as a coping mechanism and think that when everything is coming down around me, that perfection is the one thing holding me up well, that can, as I say, cascade into all sorts of negative psychological and mental health problems, which is what exactly what happened to me. And it was only when I was brought to the realization that it was actually the perfectionism that was creating those problems. So far from helping me, it was actually creating the psychological problems that were pushing me into a really deep hole. So that’s why I decided to bring those experiences to bear. And I said it wasn’t, it wasn’t easy, but I think, I hope anyway, it’s helped people, um, bring, I suppose, bring to life the, the reasons why perfectionism can be so damaging to our mental health.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, I hope so too. And I think the way you do it is, is very effective. I’m just curious in closing and you write or you touch on this towards the end of the book, what the process of writing a book was like for a perfectionist. Writing a book is a daunting task for anyone. Meeting deadlines, writing the intros, changing the intro, deciding you don’t like the way you’ve expressed yourself in a certain chapter and going back and doing it all again. How did that impact you?
Thomas Curran: Yeah, I mean, the book was three years overdue, so my editor was, ready to throw in the towel at many, many points along the process, I’m sure. And actually she gave me a very hard deadline and said, Well, if it’s not in, by this time we’re taking the previous edit, so make your mind up and basically took it off me in that way, which is really good. But yeah, it’s hard. Like, you know you want to do the best you possibly can. Do you want to make sure it’s bulletproof. You don’t want to have any gaping holes in there for people to pick at. And all of those things, by the way, are in the book. I mean, it’s an imperfect book. Um, as The Wall Street Journal described it, it’s a “strange and imperfect book.” I think what the author meant by that was they didn’t expect it to be the book that they they it wasn’t the book they thought it was going to be. And and actually, interestingly, not in a bad way, but in just a different way to what what before and that’s, you know, that’s kind of I kind of knew that going into the writing. And one of the reasons maybe I was so nervous to send it off was because I was aware that this was kind of going to be sort of the reception. So yeah, like it was tough. It was really, it was really tough. But, you know, actually the aftermath has really helped me more than the writing process itself because exactly as you expect in an information age, pretty much that first review is posted within hours of the publication release. And then they just keep coming, you know, and every day there’s more comments, more feedback, more emails. You know, I try not to look at the ratings sites, but nevertheless, you know, you can’t help but cast an eye every now and again. And there’s another review that’s great. And then there’s another review that’s not so great. And actually, all of this, all of this feedback on your work is really has really actually helped me with my perfectionism because at some point you can get really bound up in it. But then I’ve just decided I’ve just got to let it go and you know, whatever it’s going to get raised, it’s going to get rated. And however people review it are just going to review it in the ways that they see fit. And you can’t change that. You can’t control that. And actually there’s something quite comforting about knowing that. So it’s actually the aftermath of the book. I think that’s helped me a lot more with my perfectionism than writing it. Writing it really kind of feeds the perfectionism, but letting some of it go into the world and just allowing it to happen is like taking a sledgehammer to it. So, yeah, I would I would say that’s by the way,that’s permission right there to your listeners to just let things go, get it out there, don’t stop because actually it’s not as catastrophic you think it’s going to be. And that process is really liberating when you can just allow it to just be and exist. So yeah, that’s the process of the book.
Peter Bowes: Great, great advice and it’s a fascinating subject. I really enjoyed it. So, Thom, good to talk to you again. I’m going to keep following your work. Thank you so much.
Thomas Curran: Thank you Peter for having me on.
Peter Bowes: The LLAMA podcast is Healthspan Media production. We’ll be back with another conversation very soon. In the meantime, thanks so much for listening.
The Live Long and Master Aging (LLAMA) podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor.