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Perfectionism’s Dark Side: Lessons from Japan

Until you’ve been to Japan, you have never really experienced attention to detail.

Have you ordered a humble pour-over coffee? In every simple cafe in Kyoto, the experience is astonishing: it is liquid gold.

Have you ordered a hasty tea while waiting for the train? In Kyoto station, the Matcha tea is served so elegantly and is of such exceptional quality that it graduates to the realm of an experience.

One night over dinner, my rapture over Japanese perfection came to a screeching halt when local friends explained the flip side of this obsession. They told me how Japan had a very high suicide rate, and that metro service in Tokyo was interrupted nearly every day by someone attempting to end their life by jumping in front of a train. This happens so frequently that metro staff will issue a written note to people who are running late for work due to a track suicide.

This sobering fact got me thinking more about suicide rates and the factors that contribute to them across cultures. Recent studies have correlated perfectionism as an overlooked factor in many suicides.  Clearly, perfectionism is one factor that stands out in Japan’s high rate.

Japan even has a suicide season. In the spring, if Japanese students fail to pass their exams, there are more suicides. Being a student in Japan is a high-pressure occupation; the university system, instead of using GPA as the main acceptance criteria, relies on results from just one or two exams. Failure is devastating since students must wait a whole year to re-take the exams.

The same perfectly packaged tchotchkes and exquisitely prepared tea and desserts I was fawning over are symbols of perfection, which is partially what drives suicides.

Perfectionism kills.
Across the globe, in high-pressure schools and workplaces, there is little room to be vulnerable. It’s difficult to ask for help or to reveal aspects of your personality that might make you look weak.  Perfectionists work harder to hide perceived flaws because they are constantly comparing themselves to people around them. They place a high value on an all or nothing “perfect” standard, but the result of this obsession can be very isolating.

Letting Go
The Buddhist concepts of “letting go” and “acceptance” are very difficult to grasp for some of my high achieving clients in New York. Although stress and anxiety may drive them to achieve some goals, we also focus on developing skills to make them aware of their negative impacts. The drive for achievement and success fuels a vicious cycle of baseless negative self-talk and comparison to others. Anxiety and low self-esteem, and the choices they instigate, often hold these clients back.

One of my clients told me, “So I’m supposed to just give up and accept what my life is? That seems so complacent!” Yet so much of what interferes with our success and happiness isn’t external.

In Buddhist thought, “suffering” is of our own creation.  Once we can “let go” and accept things as they are, we are in a place to change them. Only by looking within and learning from our failures and disappointments can we grow.  We must embrace our imperfections.

One factor in Japan’s high suicide rates among young professional males is isolation. One study found that 20% of men aged 25-29 indicate a disinterest in sex, partly due to consumption of pornography online and fear of human contact.  Here in the US, many of us are profoundly lonely despite being surrounded by others.

Although meticulously constructed social media accounts may lead us to believe that young people are leading fabulous and exciting lives, this is not always the case. Millennials move away from their homes and families for college and then move again to the city to pursue their careers. By design, achievement and success become their priorities, while connections to other people are neglected.

The constant pursuit of perfection keeps us isolated and lonely because, to truly connect with others, we need to let our guards down and be vulnerable. When you realize you have achieved more “likes” on your Instagram than someone you admire (or even your “frenemy”), how long does that feeling of satisfaction last?

Consider the inverse, how do you feel when that picture of the perfectly baked pie, chiseled abs, or crafty DYI project, has more “likes” than your post? How long does the feeling of diminished self-worth engendered by the comparison last? In truth, meaningful and sustaining connections are usually made in the real world and not through an app.

Our relentless pursuit of perfection and societal acceptance, which sadly causes so many young Japanese people to end their lives prematurely, is a false promise. We must reach out to those around us to make meaningful connections and put social comparisons in their proper place.  Of course we can admire the beauty of perfect things, but we must also embrace the imperfect.  That is where true beauty lies.

Kerrie Thompson Mohr

Kerrie Thompson Mohr

Kerrie Thompson Mohr, LCSW is a psychotherapist and founder of A Good Place Therapy & Consulting, a group practice for children, teens, families, adults and couples in New York City. She enjoys working at the intersection of heart-centered and hard science, helping her clients discover and change distressing patterns of thinking and behavior that interfere with a fulfilling life. To learn more about Kerrie or A Good Place visit her website.

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