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Just how high are your standards when you’re striving for your goals? Are you striving for excellence or are you striving for perfection? As human beings, we are imperfect by nature, yet often the weight of comparison and societal expectation skyrockets our pursuit of perfection and takes a toll on our well-being.

That’s why it felt important to revisit my conversation with with Thomas Curran, professor of psychology and behavioral science at the London School of Economics. He helps us unravel the complexities of perfectionism, providing you with knowledge and tools to strive for a healthier mindset.

Thom’s expertise and extensive research on perfectionism culminates in his book “The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough.” He has conducted groundbreaking studies on perfection and discovered that the pressure to be perfect is still on the rise, affecting everything from our social media feeds and parenting styles to our work and hobbies.

Delving into Perfectionism

Thomas and I sift through the intriguing realm of perfectionism. We discuss the three main types – self-oriented, socially prescribed, and avoidant perfectionism – and explore how these tendencies manifest in our daily lives. Through his research, Thomas guides us to reflect on the expectations we set for ourselves, the harmful comparisons we make, and how our relentless pursuit of success can sometimes lead to failure and setbacks.

Real-Life Lessons from the World of Athletics

Throughout our conversation, we’ll draw inspiration from the world of athletics, where the pursuit of perfection is often unrivaled. From the grueling challenges of the Tour de France to my own personal racing experiences, we’ll examine how striving for perfection can leave us feeling empty. Let’s redefine success and consider self-compassion. In fact, I recorded a TEDx talk in 2015 about Redefining Success.

By embracing imperfections and countering perfectionistic tendencies, we can foster personal growth and development. Additionally, we’ll explore the value of adopting a growth mindset and accepting plateaus and regressions. Together, we’ll challenge the unattainable standards perpetuated by society and learn to appreciate achievements in their proper contexts.

Discover the power of embracing imperfections and finding solace in the notion of “good enough.” It’s time to redefine success on your terms and cultivate self-compassion along the way.

Here are Thomas’s key takeaways:

  • Understanding the three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, socially prescribed, and avoidant perfectionism
  • The role of social media in perpetuating comparison and discontent
  • The problem with growth mindset; it can lead to a constant need for more progress without accepting plateaus and regressions
  • Why high performing athletes can feel empty without a first place medal because of the emphasis and celebration of one winner
  • Practical strategies for counteracting perfectionistic tendencies, such as self-compassion and embracing our own humanity

Listen to Thomas’s episode


Episode Chapters

  • Early obstacles. 0:00
  • How perfectionism shows up in people’s lives. 3:07
  • Do you ever feel like nothing will ever be enough? 7:50
  • Focusing on effort instead of outcome. 12:51
  • Shame and the Tour de France. 19:07
  • How to deal with the shame of failure. 22:31
  • The three types of perfectionism. 28:30
  • How we celebrate achievement and people. 33:22
  • Understanding the different metrics of success. 35:44
  • Expectations on social media. 41:26
  • The three elements of self compassion. 45:58
  • What does it mean to strive for excellence? 51:07



Sonya Looney 0:00
Great. Is it Dr. Curran?

Thomas Curran 0:04
Just Thom is fine. Thomas Curran, that’s fine. Thank you. Thank you. So

Sonya Looney 0:10
Thomas Curran, welcome to the show.

Thomas Curran 0:12
Thank you for having me.

Sonya Looney 0:14
So we were talking just a second ago about athletics. And I was curious what your athletic background was growing up that made you want to pursue a bachelor’s in exercise science.

Thomas Curran 0:25
Well, I was I was a really good football player, I don’t like to blow my own trumpet. But I did get quite far in the system. When I was younger, unfortunately, I was late mature. So I got to 1415. And, and all of the other boys were a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, a little bit faster. And I came out of the system, which is a really sad, sad thing is to experience as a child, however, what it did is it kind of pumped me a little bit to do something in that area, stay in the sport, at some level, so that’s why I decided to study sport college. And I’ve kind of wound up in a very different world. But I’m always really keen to talk about sport to explore sport and use sport, actually, in my own research to try and understand a little bit more about professional.

Sonya Looney 1:18
Yeah, I mean, do you have some early memories of bumping up against this, almost like perfectionism epidemic as a youth athlete?

Thomas Curran 1:29
I think the biggest challenge back then was that accepting that it wasn’t going to happen. Because when you’re young and you go through the system, you kind of get gonna get a lot of hot air blown up you by various people and the system itself and you think you’ve been selected, so must be good, and you’ve got a really good chance of making it and it’s so exciting. And I think once you kind of crushing realization that you get cut, cut, it’s quite a brutal process you just get is really for a child is is really difficult to, I guess, cope with healthily. And certainly I didn’t. And I think that was my biggest that was my first experience with setback with challenge. And, and I think reflecting back on it, I probably those are the sort of early signs of sort of burdening, burgeoning perfectionist that wasn’t able to deal with that very well went in on myself blamed myself and spent quite a few months very low moods. A lot of saw a lot of self like criticism. And even though there’s nothing I could do, like, I just, you know, I matured three or four years later into an adult, but at that time I, I just had, you know, that’s just fate, right? Unfortunately, I was born like that, and there was no way I could change it. But you still blame yourself? And I think that was that was a moment where I was like, okay, yeah, this is I’m really quite harshly so critical on myself. And that was probably the where, where it began.

Sonya Looney 3:07
I think it’s really interesting. So as I was going through your book, you know, a lot of times when we’re reading things, we are self reflecting on how this applies to us. And in our own context, and I’ll just share with you guys that you guys meaning you in the listeners is that I used to be perfectionist, and definitely, you know, everything needed to be an A plus everything needed to be perfect. Otherwise, I’m not good enough. I’m not lovable, all of those things. And I thought that I had sort of separated myself from that overcome it in a number of different ways. To the point where I don’t strive to have a perfect process when when approaching anything, I just approach it, I’m going to do the best I can and whatever happens happens. So I thought that I was over being a perfectionist. But then when I start going through your book here, and worrying about some of these tendencies, and even some of the things that you just said, I realized, wow, this is still deeply ingrained. I thought that I was past this and I’m not. So for those listening who might not maybe people listening say Well, I’m not a perfectionist, or I’m a recovering perfectionist. Can you talk about what perfectionism actually is and how it shows up in people’s lives?

Thomas Curran 4:17
Absolutely. So I love hearing it fiction ism is all about high standards and perfectionist Do you have high standards, but what we need to pay attention to is where those standards are coming from because it can come from a very active optimistic place of wanting to do better or wanting to improve and wanting to learn that’s really healthy. Well, they could come from a little bit of a deeper, darker place, which is a need to repair or conceal or hide what we think is something that’s like deficient or defective about us. And that’s really important to remember because perfectionist, really if you want to get to the root of it. Perfectionism comes from that deficit place of not feeling like we’re Enough. And so everything that you see on the surface is really an a compensatory mechanism to try to prove to the world that actually we’re not that defective person that we deep down think we are. And that’s why you see a lot of sort of criticism come out in perfectionistic people, because once they’ve exposed a weakness, they’ve exposed their imperfect self. And, of course, we’re going to go in on ourselves, we’re going to start to really castigate that, that, that those imperfections and that, that chink in the armor, so to speak. So if we really want to get an understanding of actions, and that’s where it starts. And that’s, that’s important, because that has a knock on implications for what perfectionism does to us. And also how it in in interplays with things like performance, and behaviors, feelings, emotions, and all the rest of it.

Sonya Looney 5:50
So what are some things like you mentioned for yourself, whenever you experienced a setback at a young age, you almost over identified with it, you took too much responsibility for that said, quote, failure, what are some some ways that perfectionism shows up in people’s lives and their behavior?

Thomas Curran 6:07
You know, what you said earlier about letting other people down that was also a very rural feeling for me to not i Not only did I feel like, oh, you know, this was something that I did wrong, or that I didn’t, you know, train hard enough, or stay on task for long enough. But I also let you know, my parents that my family Dan, he also had these, like expectations for me and all the rest of it. And, and so perfectionist that people really take things. So personally, because everything is almost like a personal attack. And life is almost I could describe in the book as a sort of Court of Appeal. For our flaws. We’re constantly trying to redeem ourselves, redeem those imperfections that we know deep down we have. And so everything that we’re doing really is to try to cover over conceal, hide and prove to other people that we’ll have some fun and of course, that’s fine if things are going okay, but the moment things start to go wrong, and life doesn’t turn out the way we’d planned or we fail, then that can be really problematic for the for the perfectionist because essentially that failure that setback has exposed What did down there we’re trying to hide so. So those feelings of letting other people down feeling like we let ourselves down a hyper competitive streak and need at all times to prove ourselves of worth. Those are kind of very powerful motivating factors inside affections.

Sonya Looney 7:40
Now one that came out in myself that I was surprised I was overworking I must continue working so that I can be not perfect. But just because I feel like I have to do this work. And if I don’t do this work asking what does that mean? What does it mean, if I don’t overwork Well, then I’m not good enough. So like everything coming back to not being good enough.

Thomas Curran 8:03
Yeah, and also, there’s a kind of a feedback loop as well. Because if on the one occasion, you maybe don’t work as hard and something then happens, it’s a reminder that actually should have worked harder in the first place. So then we overcompensate for that by working even harder the next time and you’re giving in to see how that takes off, really, and begins to get extremely exhausting, overwhelming for the professionals. And this is why perfectionistic people burn out quite a lot too, because they are overcompensating all the time for a sense of, Well, if I don’t work, then I’m not going to hit this goal. And if I don’t hit that goal, then I’m not going to be in this place. And it’s always what’s coming next. And what’s the next thing and what’s the next thing? And can we keep reaching and can we keep going? Of course, it’s never a destination, there never is an endpoint that kind of point of action ism, kind of exposes our dreams all the time as dead ends, because it is never enough there’s always something more so overwork and a kind of over striving streak is, is a is a very strong behavioral tendency for a perfectionistic person.

Sonya Looney 9:04
So it’s might be more of a philosophical question, but is for people who aren’t perfectionist or don’t identify that way is do they ever feel like what they’ve done is enough or is it just sort of a general like facet of life that nothing will just ever be enough and that is just something that we need to accept as human beings

Thomas Curran 9:24
having I mean, you know, every picture is a spectrum This is the first thing to say. So some people will be really high on that spectrum, some people will be really low and some people will be in the middle and most of us are around the middle. Now, the people who are alone in this perfection spectrum, it doesn’t mean that they won’t have a some kind of worry about not being good enough. So you know, often these these feelings will creep in. But what they’re able to do is and the perfectionist isn’t able to do is rationalize those feelings and enable To identify the actually, you know, it’s not rational to feel not good enough all the time we have achieved there are things that we’ve done in our lives that got us to this position, we can take a bigger picture look. And yes, okay, things haven’t gone well in this moment. But there’s always next time. And we can always keep growing and improving. And that’s the main thing, I’m not going to get hung up over it for too long, I’m not going to let it impact on my, you know, emotional stability, or all the rest of it. But I’m just gonna let it be. I’m just gonna let it be part and parcel of I guess what it’s what it’s like to live a life that’s imperfect because we’re just human after all. So that’s the key difference between someone who’s lower on the perfectionism spectrum, and someone was higher.

Sonya Looney 10:40
In in your book, I thought this is interesting, because this is something I’ve thought about a bit is Carol Dweck model of the growth mindset? And how, you know, growth mindset is sort of the antidote to over indexing on talent or outcome or achievement. And yet there can be a dark side of having a growth mindset. Can you talk more about how growth mindset is related to perfectionism and perfectionist behaviors?

Thomas Curran 11:04
Absolutely, I believe I don’t think so. Carol, Carol didn’t didn’t intend for this to happen. But such as the obsession with grief in modern culture, her ideas kind of congealed into something of a cliche. And where where she was, where is that what she was pointing out with the growth mindset is that it’s really important for us to acknowledge that abilities, talents and intelligence are malleable as to say that they you know, we can we can grow them, we can improve them. And that’s key because that helps us keep developing, keep moving forward, keep growing and learning and all the rest of it. What we’ve what we’ve kind of turned that into is a desire and a need to keep growing at all times and for all situations. And for me, that can turn into a problem if left unchecked, because growth and more growth and more growth and more growth followed by more growth is ultimately going to lead us into the trap of perfectionism, because it’s going to keep us continually pushing for more. And it doesn’t recognize that actually, there are moments in our lives where we simply regress, we slept, we stand still, we don’t go anywhere, that’s fine. There are moments in life, when we realized we didn’t know as much as we thought we did. That’s also fine. And there are some times where there is no growth to be had in situations we knew what to do. We just screwed up, we just had a bad night. You know, it’s not as if we can take any learning from this because we knew what we needed to do. And that, by the way, is very common. So by focusing on growth, growth, growth and growth at all times, then we can we can push ourselves in the direction of perfectionism. And what I’m saying there is there’s nothing wrong with growth mindset at all. I think I think what Carol’s books ideas are exceptionally useful. But we also have to remember that there is a limit to how much we can grow. And we don’t have to grow all the time.

Sonya Looney 12:54
Yeah, and it’s somebody that can over index on effort, something that has come up for me with this is, okay, so I’m, I need to be focused on effort. Instead of outcome, I need to be rewarding people for their effort. But then somebody who has a tendency to overwork and over effort, then it becomes like almost a fixed mindset about your growth mindset of now I need to just work super, super, super hard because the work becomes the outcome.

Thomas Curran 13:18
But that’s exactly that’s exactly what I’m saying. And I in many ways, is a very succinct way to say exactly what I’ve just said. And, and I think you’re absolutely right, it’s, it’s really about acknowledging what I think our drill was trying to acknowledge, in the when she came up with this framework. And that’s that these things are malleable. And that actually, you know, it’s important for us as a starting point, as human beings to understand that so that we can go out explore, find purpose, and develop our skills and talents. So that, you know, that’s the key as a crucial part of life, in my opinion. So absolutely, it’s, it’s about the growth development. But we can’t get too fixated on the effort, because if we start to do that we can, we can go down to the path of perfectionism. And this

Sonya Looney 13:59
is slightly off topic, but I’m recording a podcast with a friend of mine. He’s like a fellow professional, athlete, creator type. And we were talking about how, you know, we’ve put in all this effort into our podcasts or newsletters, all these things, and it’s really exciting at first because you see lots of growth, but then at a certain point, your work just sort of plateaus. And if you’re always focused on growth as the goal, then you get very discouraged and lose your motivation. So we’ve talked about, well, where are we finding our motivation from if growth isn’t the goal? And I think that yeah, what you said like growth is super important. But if it’s the only thing then that can be really demotivating at times.

Thomas Curran 14:36
Yeah, I think there’s, it’s like anything, it’s trees, you know, they grow to some point and then they sit in a state of stasis for many, many centuries. Human beings you know, we reach a peak and then we then we plateau, and then we start to decline. You know, these are kind of natural life courses at everything that we do. We don’t always stay in in a steady state. If perpetual growth, and that’s absolutely fine. What the challenge, I think is to find the sweet spot, you know of sustainability, where we feel like we’re having an impact where our work has meaning and people are being positively impacted by what we’re doing, whilst, at the same time understanding that, if we continue to keep going, we’re going to compromise the quality of the output. And yes, we might get a few extra followers or whatever, but the the the counter to that is that I’m going to be exhausted, and that I’m going to not be producing as good quality work. And so, you know, this is kind of pictures do this all the time, they work so too hard, and then they, and then they work themselves, and then someone and the quality is compromised. So it’s important to, I think, find that, where you’re happy where you’re grounded, where it’s good enough, as soon as that says, that’s the subtitle of my book, I suppose finding that good enough sweet spot. And, and not being not being afraid to stay there and not being afraid, actually, you know, and we’re not going to get loads more growth at this point. But that’s okay. The purpose was to reach this high watermark, and then try to focus on other things that, I guess bring you purpose and meaning, but also help other people too. And the thing that’s the that’s the challenge,

Sonya Looney 16:14
yeah, that our satisfaction shouldn’t only be hinged on an upward trajectory of growth, but also on other things like what impact and meaning Am I making in the world? And I’m able to do that, even if I’m not on a steady treadmill of growth?

Thomas Curran 16:30
Yeah, exactly. That’s what it’s all about. Landing the plane, I suppose, and finding a good landing spot that you’re happy with. And that’s different for everybody, of course. But I think it is important, everybody thinks about that. Because if all you’re ever chasing is growth, you’re never going to be content. And you’re never gonna find a place that you truly going to be happy with in any accomplishment is going to be fleeting, because you’re always thinking about the next thing. So it’s really important as well as getting a good starting and taking off. It’s really important to have conversations with people around you and yourself about where would you be happy for us to, you know, to land this plane, where where will be a good spot where we’re satisfied and happy with? We’re in the sweet spot of purpose, meaning and impacting others.

Sonya Looney 17:14
Yeah. And I think that people listening that have that that hyper competitive streak, or that super drive on overdrive would say, well, that’s resignation, that’s just giving up if you’re landing the plane, and you’re just good enough. So you know, how do those people counter that thought?

Thomas Curran 17:29
Well, that, again, it goes back. So there’s a lot of data and a lot of research that will take you back to perfectionism. that perfection is that people work really, really hard. They do the things you just mentioned, and keep showing all the time. And yet, they’re not more successful. And that’s really curious, because you think, wouldn’t you think it’d be the opposite? Do you think it’d be way more successful, but the reason is that they burn out and the quality is compromised, we just discussed that. But they also do something really interesting. And that’s that they tend to recoil when things start to get difficult. So for those people who have that kind of fixed mindset about, they’ve got to do more, we’ve got to keep pushing, when the moment things start to go wrong. Let’s say you know, whatever targets or outcomes you’re striving for you don’t meet, then it can be really difficult for the perfection of that person. And what they’ll often do is kind of remove themselves altogether, that if I’m not going to succeed here, I’m not going to reach that goal, then I’m not going to try at all, because it can’t fail at something I didn’t try it. And so this can also be an interesting psychology for people who have who have more perfectionistic tendencies in that, yes, yes, they do do this immense driving. But when things start to go wrong, it can it can cascade in a very bad way. And in order to save themselves as to say stop themselves from feeling that embarrassment, shame and guilt of not succeeding, and they can withdraw themselves altogether. So my message would be a cautionary tale for trying to do more and more and more is that it’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming, you’re probably going to burn out. And also, it’s not likely to make you any more successful,

Sonya Looney 19:06
or happier.

Thomas Curran 19:08
Certainly not happier.

Sonya Looney 19:12
Yeah, I love a lot of the examples in your book. And some of them you were from the Tour de France, and also talking about Lance Armstrong. And you also talked about shame in the book. And I’m actually referencing myself more than I normally do in this podcast. But I think that the application of some of these ideas is hopefully relatable to the listener. So if people are like, Why is she doing that? That’s why I’m doing that. So shame. So I did this race in June, and I had done a lot of work getting prepared for it. But it just didn’t work out the way I was hoping and I was in the race I was I was just like really bummed about it and not having fun and that fun and I asked myself, Why am I not having fun right now like what does it matter the result that I get? No, why am I concerned about this result that I may or may not get? And it came down to shame I’m ashamed of myself. I’m ashamed of this like name that people look at that think needs to be at a certain place. And the concern of what now what are people going to think about me? And once I acknowledged that, oh, this is shame that I’m feeling, and then I just accepted that, okay, like, this is what it kind of feels like. And that’s all right, then I was able to move past it. But I think that’s a huge reason why people make excuses or people can’t be happy with their results, even if it’s a great result. Is that shame piece of that this should be better than it actually was.

Thomas Curran 20:30
Yeah, shame is, is, I mean, you can probably tell that cycling is a is a hobby of mine, and follow it quite closely. But one of the reasons why I use those examples is because cycling just like most sports, actually, is really interesting failure theater, because most people fell. You know, I can’t remember how many started the Tour de France, but only one is going to win of about 200 Odd cyclists saying we wouldn’t wouldn’t you know, this 70 or tennis players, only one’s going to lift the trophy at the end, you can go down all the sports, and the vast, vast majority of athletes that start out are going to fail, I think are so interesting, so interesting about actually what it means to be a human being because most of the time, we’re gonna fail. And there’s something so intimately revealing about what it means to be human in those moments. And eviction is that people really struggle with the with the sense of failure, particularly failure looks quite public. That’s onshore, because it really reveals what they’re trying their hardest to conceal. And the problem is for the perfection, so is this going to happen all the time, it’s going to happen, there’s going to happen every day, week after month of the year. And, and that’s why it is so psychologically challenging, because of the shame that is perfectly proficient mystic people feel carrying the carry around them, and then is triggered all the time with these little setbacks and failures, mistakes, whatever. And that’s that I’ve tried to explain in the book, that’s the main reason why you see perfectionistic, people experienced some quite significant mental health problems, because when you take perfectionism, and you put it in a chaotic world, there’s all sorts of things that are gonna go wrong all the time. That’s when those mental health problems start to surface. So shame is a really big one to pay attention to. And if you feel if you’re starting to feel a lot of shame, when you encounter setbacks and failures, then it’s highly likely that there might be some perfectionism going on there. And what I tried to do in the look is provide, I hope, anyway, some perspective, and hope that you know, this is very normal is very not Drew is something very humanizing about Farish and to be a tool, something that we should be ashamed of wish to be instead something I think that we should embrace,

Sonya Looney 22:57
then in some ways, it’s almost exposure therapy, whenever you’re showing up to these events, repeatedly, knowing that you’re probably not going to win the event, because it’s hard to win every single event. And in that moment, whenever you are doing that you have whenever you’re not performing the way that you had hoped, or maybe you’re performing amazingly well, and you still don’t get the outcome that you’re hoping for. It’s such a great opportunity to practice acceptance and self compassion, and I’m, I’m still a worthy person, I’m still a worthy human being, even without these results. And almost, if you can view it this way, like, I’m going to repeatedly fail, and I’m still going to be fine. And then that creates a different Launchpad not a deficit that you’re trying to perform to fill a hole, but almost the space of okay, I’m going to be curious about the things that are going to come up. And then hopefully, I’m able to embrace and be able to weather this feeling and move past it.

Thomas Curran 23:51
By such a good, it’s such a good way to work on that embracing of failure means radical acceptance of letting the world happen rather than trying to happen constantly in the world. And the way I like to think about it is because even objectively high levels of performance can feel decidedly flat or empty, when you’re at the very top. So the higher you go, the harder it is. I think Nassim Taleb did a recent mathematical experiment and he found that basically, elite athletes like those, the very top are kind of Six Sigma human beings. That means that there’s one excellent athlete, early athlete for every 1.4 million people on the planet. Right, so just get your head around that like wrap your head around how unlikely it is that you will ever make it to the very, very top in whatever you do. And then if you’re even competing, like if you’re even mixing it there, you are so good. Like, you are so so good. So um, those moments where you don’t quite perform to the level which you hired to it didn’t quite work out. I think sometimes just taking a step back and perspective of you and your achievements in the Throw the context of what they actually mean is so, so important because they’re, you’re into that zone of compassion. They’re, you’re into that zone of perspective and reflection and being able to, yes, okay, you know, we don’t have you know, we’re gonna feel down, that’s natural. But at the same time, we can appreciate that we gave it a go put ourselves out there. And we’ll just go again next time. And, and I think compassion can perspective so, so important.

Sonya Looney 25:27
And I want to talk more broadly about accepting success and not rejecting it, because I am a coach, and I work with lots of clients on mental performance and health and wellness. And something that I see among high achievers, and in my own life, is that we’ll succeed at something but then it’s not, it’s not enough. It’s like, well, here’s an example. I’m a world champion, which sounds ridiculous even say it, but it’s true. And yet, it’s not enough because of a comparison to an ideal. And, or, like, I got this promotion at work. And yet, it’s still not good enough, because of whatever reason, because there’s always this upward comparison of what is, quote, perfect. So, you know, how can people work on accepting their success and celebrating that success, while at the same time holding some of these feelings that might come up?

Thomas Curran 26:12
Yeah, I mean, the better you do, the better you feel you’re expected to do as well, it’s kind of, it’s both internal, but also external. You know, I certainly feel that the higher you go up in my professional work, I’ve kind of felt like, now I have a, now there’s an expectation on me, like, from every one, I’m gonna keep pumping out important papers and all the rest of it. And so this is like, the, this is how it works, right. And I think the biggest thing is to try to live inside a reality where you know that you’ve made it to a very high pleasure able to recognize that appreciate that. Knowing that, you know, there’s always going to be expectations that you place on yourself and other people. And to some extent, those expectations really good, they keep moving, keep you moving forward, they keep you improving, but it’s so, so, so important to make sure that you keep as much in perspective as you possibly can, I can’t emphasize that enough. Because if you don’t, you’re just continually chasing evangelists never going to, it’s never going to reveal itself. And, you know, going back to the point I made a minute ago, there’s only going to be very, very few people that actually, you know, kind of almost, they’re not just outliers, they’re kind of genetic, like, I’m trying to think of the word but they’re, they’re on such a, there’s so remote in terms of like, their physiology, or the physical characteristics, that means that, you know, they will make it to the top right. And that if you don’t quite make it there, it’s not just you know, that you haven’t worked hard enough, or that you haven’t put in the training hours, it’s also you might just not have, you just might not have had the makeup right. And that’s, that’s also okay to like, that’s just fate and fate is nothing personal. It’s, you know, you can’t do it, like, go back to my example, I just was in late develop, and I probably would have made it to the Premier League anyway. But it was just fate that I wasn’t going to be that I was going to make it through that system. And that’s sometimes you know, in the moment is really difficult. And as a young person, you can’t conceptualize that. But as an as an older person I’ve been able to reflect it’s quite, I think, soothing to be able to know that actually, it wasn’t ever going to happen. And that’s okay. So I think sometimes we can over personalize these things. Looking at the bigger picture. And as you mentioned earlier, self compassion. These are two really important things.

Sonya Looney 28:40
So I found it really interesting, when you talked about some of the work about the multi dimensional model of perfectionism. And a lot of this that we’ve been talking about is self oriented perfectionism. Can you talk about the other two?

Thomas Curran 28:53
Yes, self oriented. Perfectionism is that inner drive to be perfect and nothing but perfect and has some self criticism that comes along with it. But when we talk to perfection, so people you don’t just hear stories about their own inner drive, you also hear them talk about expectations, I feel are placed on them by other people, and they feel like other people expect them to be perfect, and everyone in all around them expects him to be perfect. That’s called socially prescribed perfectionism. And and then there’s a third type called avoidant perfectionism, which is where essentially I’m turning my perfectionism outwards on to other people, so that I expect you to be perfect and nothing but perfect and, and so these three elements of social and other what we, over many, many decades have come to understand as a kind of broad multi dimensional perfectionism model.

Sonya Looney 29:42
Yeah, and in your book, you had a chapter on parenting, and I have a one and a three year old. So I’ve been thinking a lot about, you know, parenting and all the different psychological skills that I’ve learned in my own life and how to, you know, help my kids and be a good parent. It sounds like a lot of the problems that come from parenting that brings up This feeling of I need to achieve or prove to be enough so that I get love from my parent, the parent is projecting that other oriented perfectionism on their kids.

Thomas Curran 30:09
Yeah, so as my research rose to prominence on the on a finding that show perfectionism was rising over time. And so as we as we’re moving through generations, we’ve seen high levels of perfectionism, which is going to inevitably impact on future generations, because we know that perfectionism is run through is intergenerational both through genes, but also through the ways that parents parent. And one of the ways that young people can pick up perfectionism is by learning socially, that if my parent or caregiver expected me to be perfect, then or is has perfectionistic tendencies themselves, and I’m going to mirror those I’m going to, I’m going to learn that that’s the way to behave. That’s the way you know, to strive. But it isn’t just that young people learn from their parents, or look at their parents perfection number and learn from it directly. They also can teach it indirectly through things like conditional approval, and giving our children praise, and warmth, when they’ve done something well, like achieved a grade at school or whatever. But withholding that or subtly deferring that if they haven’t quite reached that higher benchmark, which basically teaches them that they’re only really work for approval and validation, when they’ve achieved really high grades. And that can be quite problematic, too, because it can tend to be a dependency then on high grades like that worthwhile, which can ultimately lead to perfectionism. So it’s really important not only to as a parents listening, not only to try to sort of dial back those expectations that we have for our staff, of our people, but also really, really important to make sure that our attention, affection, love is unconditional as to say doesn’t doesn’t matter what happens, we’re going to love our kids anyway. And there’s got to be really consistently applied. And that’s that so is one thing I recommend parents all the time is that that’s so so important, because that that really helps a healthy adjustment. And the sense of very secure sense of self esteem that doesn’t, isn’t tied to the outcome. So it’s really, really important.

Sonya Looney 32:13
Yeah, and I imagine that takes a lot of self awareness on the parents part to not be projecting that, especially if that was what their entire, you know, the generations of their family had done.

Thomas Curran 32:24
Yeah, it’s so so tough, and I got so much empathy. And a lot of my book is really a very empathetic view of parenting, because it’s, it’s not easy, and it’s not. And it’s not just how we were parented ourselves to try to kind of unlearn those tendencies, certainly speak from personal experience, myself, but also the world around us is, is just so demanding. And you look out there, and you see young people under so much pressure to do well in school and get into the right colleges to secure their futures in the best jobs. That’s a lot of pressure. And parents, you know, naturally are going to push because if they don’t, they can be quite, you know, more severe than perhaps they were in their generation, for instance. So there’s so much pressure there. And it’s so difficult right now. And there is no one like right way to parent, but I think there are some philosophical things we can take on board and try to apply. And the main one, I think, is unconditional regard.

Sonya Looney 33:22
There’s something else that I think about a lot is culturally, how we celebrate achievement and people because this isn’t just something where someone can say, Okay, well, you know, I noticed that I tried to get more love by achieving when I was younger, because when you get older, the same exact thing happens, like you mentioned in the book, like one person can win the Tour de France, but a tiniest margin more of effort, or luck. And that person is hoisted upon their shoulders and celebrated. I’ve noticed this in my own racing, if I win the race, while everybody is like super excited about this and talking about it. But if I came second, well, nobody even really wants to hear from me. And so we are, and this happens in school to like, Oh, you’re going to an Ivy League university versus Oh, you’re going to a community college like, there is this part where as humans, we over celebrate and over emphasize somebody’s achievement instead of other things. And because of that, people will not feel good about their achievement, because they’re not they’re getting conditional love once again. And they might still be achieving great things.

Thomas Curran 34:25
Yeah, but they’re getting it this time from society, which is very different to parents. And that’s something that we can’t control. It’s really interesting to say that because in the UK, we have this thing on a levels results day, which is basically the results that tell that get you into university raise. If you get good A levels you can get into the best universities and if you don’t do very well then nobody really cares. And what’s really interesting, then local newspapers and television teams come to schools and they’ll take photos of the kids who’ve got like the best grades smiling and happy and what they what they don’t do is pay any attention to the kids. So like crying in the background or so can you feel like they’ve kind of their whole future is now in jeopardy because they haven’t succeeded on this one. This is such an important day. And I was one of those kids. And yet, you know, like, because I didn’t get very good at levels, and I was in the toilet cubicle like, you know, I haven’t been consoled by my mother, because I didn’t do. And I think that’s, and that’s, but there is no, but this is how this is how young people are taught to see their value in, in like, there’s a person aged and something really, really amazing. Nothing, take nothing away from them. But there’s the attention. That’s, that’s who the smiling faces are projected on. That’s what’s in the newspapers. And that’s what’s on the television screen. And I think, you know, it’s so, so important that we have a slightly different metric of success, and that we actually understand that in society sometimes. You know, there’s different circumstances for people success is beyond like their abilities to try hard, you know, like learning stars and social situations. I mean, the big one in the book for me is understanding that the people who’ve made it to the top of any particular profession did so of course, because they worked hard, and they applied themselves. But there are also other factors there that are just as important luck, physiology smart, having the right social circumstances growing up in the right communities, all these things are really important to later success that we don’t focus on, we just focus on the end result, the outcome. I think sometimes we just need to take a much as a society of broader holistic look at what successes and successful mean different things to different people. And Success for me was getting into university that day, but it didn’t feel like it because everyone else was doing so much better. And that’s where the attention was. And I just think sometimes we just need to have a little bit more of a kind of a balanced, okay, you know, different diff, there are different metrics to success. And that’s okay, you know, if you worked hard, you applied yourself. And that’s, that’s all you can do. And that’s the main thing. So yeah, I always agree with you. But it’s such a difficult, that’s a really difficult one to change. And we just kind of have to arm ourselves with an awareness of that’s just gonna happen.

Sonya Looney 37:13
Yeah, I mean, that we can’t really change that. But I think just being aware of that is really helpful. And then being able to celebrate your success with people that are close to you, and then figure out how to define that success. Like what did a lot of people don’t have a metric for how they’re gonna define or measure their success. And then also, you know, culturally, we’re told how to celebrate success, like you have to go out to dinner with your family to celebrate success, or have a beer or whatever. And that can feel really unfulfilling to celebrate in that way, if that doesn’t resonate with you. So like, how do you feel successful, like the feeling of success is different than the actual achievement of the success.

Thomas Curran 37:50
And it’s different for every every person as well. And I think that’s also important to remember, too, and there’s, there’s no one size fits all for success if we just if all we do is focus on the outliers. And, and we say, as a society, well, that sort of successes and anything less than that is a failure. They do, we didn’t make it to some top, you know, we’re not, we’re not a multimillionaire investor, or we’re not an elite athlete who’s mixing it at the very top, or we’re not an Ivy League professor or whatever. Like, somehow anything less than that. It’s just, you know, it’s BS is total BS, but that’s how we That’s how these high performance, this high performance world that just celebrates the very, very elite kind of teaches us all the time. And I think we do need to have a conversation about how healthy that is. And actually, wherever we, you know, there are, you know, I think a good idea for a podcast, for instance, would be let’s talk to people that didn’t quite make it. Yeah. Because I think they would tell us a lot of a lot more about success and the people that did, because what is it How Why did you get to the through that final? hurdle? What was it that stopped you and I think we could collate those experiences, and we could understand a great deal about success by understanding what are the limiting factors to that’s just one example. But only we could as a society is important to have a more grounded discussion about success and what it means to different people.

Sonya Looney 39:15
Yeah, it sounds like an underlying theme that we’ve talked about a lot is expectations, expectations of ourselves, expectations from others expectations of others, and the comparison comparison to ourselves, our past selves comparison to other people, how we feel in comparison to other people and how that impacts our motivation and our feelings of adequacy.

Thomas Curran 39:38
Yes, I agree with that wholeheartedly. I think that’s one of the reasons why young people are struggling right now. Because there there were a set of expectations. And there are a set of expectations that are pushed on them all the time. But the problem is, they’re running into more and more an economy that’s a lot harder to thrive and it’s a lot harder to attain the things that their parents had, you know, like a house and a family before 30 and older, and a community and being stable in one place. And all of these things that were kind of considered to be synonymous with the good life that were coming a lot harder. And it’s that expectation difference between what young people expect to have had at this moment in life and what they actually have. It’s causing a lot of psychological difficulties. And, you know, it’s really hard to recalibrate those expectations and say, Well, you know, unfortunately, the economy isn’t what it was. And you have to rein in what you what you think you should have, by a certain point in time, that’s a difficult discussion, after 50 years of free market economics. But nevertheless, we are where we are. And that’s what faces young people, I don’t think sometimes it is important to have a frank discussion about what is a realistic expectation, and what isn’t. And I don’t think social media helps in this respect, even because social media really amplifies those expectations, puts them on steroids, almost and says, you know, this is what you could have, this is what you could be, this is what you should be, and why aren’t you and again, that mismatch between what they see what young people see all the time staring back at them, and where they actually are, is really challenging psychologically, it makes us feel low about ourselves, and inculcate those perfectionistic tendencies or kind of strive and desire to do more to be more to be perfect. So expectation management is, is huge. But again, you’re running into a society that pushes unrealistic expectations all the time.

Sonya Looney 41:35
Yeah, I mean, on social media, there’s how I don’t even know how many filters there are. But if you take a video or post a picture of yourself, you can make yourself look any way you want to. And it’s almost like, it’s expected for you to use these filters so that you don’t have a wrinkle or that you have perfect lighting, or that you’re only posting these amazing pictures of yourself, you know, doing your sport, and the pressure to even post on social media can be really high. And then whenever people are perceiving a picture, they look at a picture and they assume that the best case scenario for that person, that that person must be feeling amazing, they must be strong, they must have all the time in the world. And then when they projected back on themselves, they their negativity bias, like everything is the worst. So it’s this like, really wild swinging scenario where they see this is the best of possible and then they look in the mirror and say this is the worst possible.

Thomas Curran 42:27
But even just as just as we can be moved in that direction, by society that keeps telling us we need to be more in Project perfect late in life, so that we can also from the bottom up, change that culture by trying to make sure that what we project into the outside world is real. And I’ve seen, you know, some of the best, like, if you really like manage your social media feeds, you can provide such a healthy environment, where people are supporting each other, they’re showing their real lives. They’re providing help and support and advice and stuff that’s like really super, super informative, and tips and tricks and things that I really take into the real life to make it to enrich it to enliven it. But the but also, there’s a lot of stuff out there that is unhealthy. And that pushes us in another direction to you know, instead of be inspired to feel low about ourselves. And so, you know, social media has has a tremendous power to be really fulfilling and enlivening. But we need to we the users need to use it, I think in the most responsible ways possible. But I think that’s I think there is there’s hope, actually there because I think there’s there is a counterculture occurring. And a lot of people are using a social media feeds like that. So I think that long may that continue?

Sonya Looney 43:41
Yeah. And it takes courage to do that, like I do my best to portray a balanced image of what this actually looks like to pursue life. But it’s hard to do that sometimes. Because, well, you know, what if people are watching and they think less of you like, oh, well, you don’t train as much as I think you do. Or you, you know, you aren’t as organized as as you as we think you are, like, but I do think that there is freedom in that vulnerability of look like I’m not perfect, here it is, and take it or leave it and then you don’t have to try to be something you’re not.

Thomas Curran 44:17
And I think also there’s something quite humanizing about that, but also that brings people together the biggest. So when I say I do this thing now as a lecturer, because everybody that comes to watch me talk thinks that lectures are professors, they know everything, like, you don’t know everything. But that’s See, this is really interesting, though, because this is so interesting, because they think, oh, you know, this guy must be like, so intelligent, you must know all these statistics in the area. Right? So what I do now is again, the first time I did this, it was amazing what happened. So I said, Well, I would have analyzed it like this. So I did an analysis but I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. time, so I did it wrong. And now I had to redo it in a different paper. And you can see like, all the students just kind of breathe a sigh of relief that somebody who they thought was bulletproof or suddenly showed some kind of weakness and limitation, they did do something wrong. And that’s what they do all the time, right. That’s what we all do all the time to the wilderness as we all do things wrong. And we all worry that we’ve made a mistake. And and, and that’s, there’s something quite empowering about that. And it goes back to the social media piece, because I think it also brings us together, when we show that vulnerability, because we know deep down, we’re all vulnerable, flawed, fallible mortal human beings. And there’s something quite relieving about acknowledging that in ourselves, but also having other people reinforce that fact to us all the time. So just social media can be a hall of mirrors of perfection, it can also be a hall of mirrors or imperfection. And if we lived in that social media, I think it would be way, way healthier place.

Sonya Looney 45:58
Now that makes me think about you know, you talked about Kristin Neffs work in your book, and I’ve had her on the podcast before, like the three elements of self compassion, mindfulness, kindness and common humanity. And I think that if you don’t have that common humanity piece, and you don’t view people like, oh, that pert, that Professor even though he’s a professor is also like me, then it’s much harder to have self compassion whenever you view yourself as other from everybody else.

Thomas Curran 46:22
Oh, it’s so it. But I love I love enough to work. It’s it’s a cornerstone, really, of my own. And I think her tireless effort to learn more about self compassion, work out what it is, and how it impacts us, has been so anchored a groundbreaking and groundbreaking is the right word in this area, and certainly that common humanity piece. For many, for many years, actually, it was a missing piece of self compassionate literature. But it’s so so important that it’s there. Because, as I said, I think there’s something so remarkably connecting, like socially connecting with this, this idea that if we can be vulnerable with each other, that kind of strengthens our ties together, there’s the, you know, we live in a loneliness epidemic. And I think one of the reasons is because we’re so disconnected not only from our server trying to be perfect, but from everyone else, because we were sharing this perfect facade, and that’s not letting anyone else in. So as much as it’s also important for us to have that soft clarity is so so important also for social work in our relationships with other people too. Because opening up being vulnerable, lets other people in. And I think that’s, you know, that is the this for me, this is like taking a sledgehammer to perfectionism, which is why I talk about it in the book, because this is how you really break through those limiting tendencies to worry and impression, manage, and try to perfect everything and all around you once you can sort of break through that with a self clarity that nobody’s perfect. All could ever be made perfect. You can really start moving in a very positive direction.

Sonya Looney 48:07
Yeah. And on this compassion piece, I was at this positive psychology World Congress last weekend. So hopefully I get this right, because there’s like drinking out of a firehose, but there’s a lecture, James Kirby, who was there talking about compassion. And there’s an I hope this was his but there’s three circles on this slide. And it was self compassion, compassion towards others, but receiving compassion from others. And I find that perfectionist achievers have a very difficult time receiving compassion. Maybe you can be self compassionate. But when somebody else tries to give you compassion, you can’t accept that.

Thomas Curran 48:43
Yeah, perfectionist move themselves away from other people. This is going back to the work of Karen Horney, who I’d bring up in the book as a focal figuring in perfectionism while she was a master clinician, and one of the things she observed with perfectionistic people all the time, move themselves away, for two reasons, but the main one is because it’s safe, right, and criticism and rejection by them that they’re petrified that somebody isn’t going to find them worthwhile, that are acceptable, and that they’re going to be approved or criticize. And that’s obviously has a massive impact on the way that we feel about ourselves. So we tend to recoil from social situations and move away. Which goes back to the piece of being able to accept when people show us appreciation, warmth, these are things that can be very foreign to a perfectionistic person and they’re very unsure or uneasy with those situations. And so again, the compassion piece, as I mentioned, is not just for ourselves, but it’s also for our relationship with others.

Sonya Looney 49:47
Yeah, another example of that that might resonate with people is when you’re doing something and someone tells you Good job, but maybe you don’t feel like you’re doing a good enough job and then you can’t accept the compliment that they gave you that you’re doing a good job or And someone’s cheering for you, and you’re not doing well in the race and then makes you feel bad because you think that, well, this isn’t actually my best. So like we’re rejecting it.

Thomas Curran 50:09
Well, it’s also kind of par for the course as well, right? Like, if you do some of it, well, that’s, well, that’s what you’re expected to do. Because you have set yourself that has highest standards. So that’s just par for the course, like, you’re gonna be patting me on the back for doing what I should have been expected to do as somebody who has a really high standard. So it’s also that last that satisfaction thing as well about not being able to appreciate successes of satisfactions, because they’re quite fleeting. Yeah. Okay, we did something well, but that’s kind of what we expected ourselves to do. So go, and that’s the same psychology when it comes to receiving praise. You know, oh, thank you very much. But yeah, that’s really, you know, that’s the bare minimum we should have been expecting. And now we’re going to do again, now we’re going to go again, and now I’m going to keep going again. So yeah, it’s really it’s just a it’s very problematic, personality characteristic to carry around for, for so many reasons. But one of the things we don’t talk about enough, and I’m glad we’ve spent a little bit of time talking about is how it impacts our relationships with other people, because that can be just as profound.

Sonya Looney 51:07
So to close this out, I have a quote from the book. It says the answer to perfectionism success paradox lies not in dialing it back a bit and striving for excellence. Instead, it lies in learning to embrace the inevitable inevitability of setbacks, failures, and things not going quite as we planned. And being able to sit comfortably next to those humanizing experiences to let them be not needing to rehabilitate them on the redemptive arc of excellence, not needing to drive them out of existence. And that was some themes you picked up at the end of the book as well, but the paradox and then the striving for excellence instead. And I know that you kind of mentioned in the book like, well, this might not 100% Be it the striving for excellence piece, because that could be taken out of context. But can you talk about what that means to strive for excellence?

Thomas Curran 51:52
So excellence is let’s go back a bit. So the so you have a lot of people say, Well, okay, we can’t perfection is an inherently impossible goal. So let’s not, let’s not strive for the impossible, let’s strive for the improbable instead, which is excellent. And that, and the reason why I say it’s improvers, okay, back to that statistic for Nassim Taleb, no athlete is perfect, but quite a few are excellent. Now, the thing is, it’s so unlikely that we are going to make into that class of athletes that might be excellent. So the top five 10%, because these are, you know, these are kind of this is almost like a moonshot. Most of us fully 75% of people are gonna fall somewhere around the average. And there really shouldn’t be anything shameful about being average. And this is the this is the point that I’m trying to, or what I’m trying to pick up in the book on the excellence piece is that, yes, nobody’s perfect, but also equally to trying to strive to be excellent, is also a really, really high bar. And it’s better to acknowledge and recognize that we may very well end up middle of the pack. And that’s okay. There’s a lot of compassion, there’s a lot of acceptance, that doesn’t mean to say, by the way, that we don’t strive, it doesn’t mean to say that we don’t work, we don’t learn and grow. And on that journey, we might very well make it to the excellent athlete, or the excellent professor, whatever it might be. And that’s great. That’s amazing. Enjoy that. But equally, we might not, and that’s not a disaster, it’s not a catastrophe. That’s okay, too. So being able to live inside that reality, accepting that things may go, well, they may not go so well. I think it’s so so important to live in a happy, contented, and I would say, life that’s filled with success, because we know that striving hard and working too hard is not the recipe to success actually being able to have balance and purpose and acknowledged and things aren’t gonna go well and strive in a very active and optimistic way to try and improve and grow and all the rest of it. These are really amazing things. So that’s why you know, that’s my, that’s my push back against this idea that excellence is the thing we should be striving for, if not perfection, because I think it’s really important to know that those things might happen, but they might not need any and every outcome is okay. What’s most important is that we exist, we live we breathe, and we enjoy this incomprehensible existence. That’s the most important thing. So yeah, that’s where that’s that’s what I meant by that point.

Sonya Looney 54:36
Yeah, thanks for clarifying that. And that’s such a beautiful place to wrap this podcast up. Where can people find your book and find your work?

Thomas Curran 54:45
So my book is available in manuscript bookstores. I think it’s also available online. If you type in fiction trap. It’s one of the Promoted Links. It’ll pop straight up. And yeah, if you want to connect it Sir Thomas Curran on LinkedIn and you can reach me also a

Sonya Looney 55:08
Great well thanks so much for writing this incredible book and for the work you’re doing and for this book launch

Thomas Curran 55:13
right thanks so much I really appreciate it great to chat.

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