Why Perfectionism is So Damaging and What to do About It

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As a culture, we tend to reward perfectionists for their insistence on setting high standards and relentless drive to meet those standards. And perfectionists frequently arehigh achievers — but the price they pay for success can be chronic unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

“Reaching for the stars, perfectionists may end up clutching at air,” psychologist David Burns warned in a 1980 Psychology Today essay. “[Perfectionists] are especially given to troubled relationships and mood disorders.”

Definitions

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. It is best conceptualized as a multidimensional characteristic, as psychologists agree that there are many positive and negative aspects. In its maladaptive form, perfectionism drives people to attempt to achieve unattainable ideals or unrealistic goals, often leading to depression and low self-esteem.

Research

Perfectionists strain compulsively and unceasingly toward unobtainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring oneself to achieve unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment. Perfectionists tend to be harsh critics of themselves when they fail to meet their standards.

Although there is a general perfectionism that affects all realms of life, some researchers contend that levels of perfectionism are significantly different across different domains (i.e. work, academic, sport, interpersonal relationships, home life).

Researchers such as T. S. Greenspon disagree with the terminology of “normal” vs. “neurotic” perfectionism, and hold that perfectionists desire perfection and fear imperfection and feel that other people will like them only if they are perfect. For Greenspon, perfectionism itself is thus never seen as healthy or adaptive, and the terms “normal” or “healthy” perfectionism are misnomers, since absolute perfection is impossible. He argues that perfectionism should be distinguished from “striving for excellence”, in particular with regard to the meaning given to mistakes. Those who strive for excellence can take mistakes (imperfections) as incentive to work harder. Unhealthy perfectionists consider their mistakes a sign of personal defects. For these people, anxiety about potential failure is the reason perfectionism is felt as a burden.

The book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Jeanette Dewyze and Allan Mallinger contends that perfectionists have obsessive personality types.Obsessive personality type is different from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in that OCD is a clinical disorder that may be associated with specific ritualized behavior or thoughts. According to Mallinger and DeWyze, perfectionists are obsessives who need to feel in control at all times to protect themselves and ensure their own safety. By always being vigilant and trying extremely hard, they can ensure that they not only fail to disappoint or are beyond reproach but that they can protect against unforeseen issues caused by their environment. Vigilance refers to constant monitoring, often of the news, weather, and financial markets.

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“There’s a difference between excellence and perfection,” explains Miriam Adderholdt, a psychology instructor at Davidson Community College in Lexington, North Carolina, and author of Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good? Excellence involves enjoying what you’re doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned, and developing confidence. Perfection involves feeling bad about a 98 and always finding mistakes no matter how well you’re doing. A child makes all As and one B. All it takes is a parent raising an eyebrow for the child to get the message.

The truly subversive aspect of perfectionism, however, is that it leads people to conceal their mistakes. Unfortunately, that strategy prevents a person from getting crucial feedback — feedback that both confirms the value of mistakes and affirms self-worth — leaving no way to counter the belief that worth hinges on performing perfectly. The desire to conceal mistakes eventually forces people to avoid situations in which they are mistake-prone — often seen in athletes who reach a certain level of performance and then abandon the sport altogether.

Perfectionism is self-defeating in still other ways. The incessant worry about mistakes actually undermines performance. Canadian psychologists Gordon L. Flett and Paul L. Hewitt studied the debilitating effects on athletes of anxiety over perfect performance. They uncovered “the perfection paradox.” “Even though certain sportsrequire athletes to achieve perfect performance outcomes, the tendency to be cognitively preoccupied with the attainment of perfection often undermines performance.” Overconcern about mistakes orients them to failure.

Signs You May Be a Perfectionist

Perfectionism doesn’t have to reach Black Swan levels to wreak havoc on your life and health. Even casual perfectionists (who may not think of themselves as perfectionists at all) can experience the negative side-effects of their personal demand for excellence.

1. You believe “I must be perfect or I will be rejected/not approved of/liked.” You make a link between your performance in everything you do and that affecting how people will accept you, which is very important to you.

2. If you make a mistake, it’s the end of the world. You catastrophize and exaggerate the importance and impact of the mistakes you might or actually do make. And you may think you won’t survive if you make those mistakes.

3. You often procrastinate. Procrastination often is linked to perfectionism. Not only must the task at hand must be done perfectly, otherwise the perfectionist will feel like a failure, but also the conditions must be ideal in advance before action is taken. This is called “having all your ducks in a row,” which is actually an impossibility. So the perfectionist delays taking action, waiting for the ideal conditions or circumstances or overplans.

4. There is only one perfect way to do/accomplish things, and everything else is wrong/substandard or a failure.You believe there is only one measure of success — 100%.

5. You’ve always been eager to please. Perfectionism often starts in childhood. At a young age, we’re told to reach for the stars — parents and teachers encourage their children to become high achievers and give them gold stars for work well done (and in some cases, punishing them for failing to measure up). Perfectionists learn early on to live by the words “I achieve, therefore I am” — and nothing thrills them quite like impressing others (or themselves) with their performance. Unfortunately, chasing those straight A’s — in school, work and life — can lead to a lifetime of frustration and self-doubt.”

6. You know your drive to perfection is hurting you, but you consider it the price you pay for success. The prototypical perfectionist is someone who will go to great (and often unhealthy) lengths to avoid being average or mediocre, and who takes on a “no pain, no gain” mentality in their pursuit of greatness. Although perfectionists aren’t necessarily high achievers, perfectionism is frequently tied to workaholism. “[The perfectionist] acknowledges that his relentless standards are stressful and somewhat unreasonable, but he believes they drive him to levels of excellence and productivity he could never attain otherwise,” famed psychologist David Burns writes.

7. You’re highly critical of others. Being judgmental toward others is a common psychological defense mechanism: we reject in others what we can’t accept in ourselves. And for perfectionists, there can be alotto reject. Perfectionists are highly discriminating, and few are beyond the reach of their critical eye. By being less tough on others, some perfectionists might find that they start easing up on themselves.

8. You go big or go home. Many perfectionists struggle with black-and-white thinking — you’re a success one moment and a failure the next, based on your latest accomplishment or failure — and they do things in extremes. If you have perfectionist tendencies, you’ll probably only throw yourself into a new project or task if you know there’s a good chance you can succeed — and if there’s a risk of failure, you’ll likely avoid it altogether. Studies have found perfectionists to be risk-averse, which can inhibit innovation and creativity. For perfectionists, life is an all or nothing game.

9. You have a hard time opening up to other people. Author and researcher Brene Brown has called perfectionism a “20-ton shield” that we carry around to protect ourselves from getting hurt — but it most cases, perfectionism simply prevents us from truly connecting with others.

10. And you get really defensive when criticized. You might be able to pick out a perfectionist in conversation when they jump to defend themselves at even the slightest hint of a criticism. In an effort to preserve their fragile self-image and the way they appear to others, a perfectionist tries to take control by defending themselves against any threat — even when no defense is needed.

11. You’re never quite “there yet.” Because perfection is, of course, an impossible pursuit, perfectionists tend to have the perpetual feeling that they’re not quite there yet. Self-described perfectionist Christina Aguilera told InStyle in 2010 that she focuses on all the things she hasn’t yet accomplished, which gives her a drive to constantly out-do herself.

How Perfectionism Can Sabotage Work Performance and Lead to Workaholism

Extensive research has found the psychology of perfectionism to be rather complex. Yes, perfectionists strive to produce flawless work, and they also have higher levels of motivation and conscientiousness than non-perfectionists. However, they are also more likely to set inflexible and excessively high standards, to evaluate their behavior overly critically, to hold an all-or-nothing mindset about their performance (“my work is either perfect or a total failure”), and to believe their self-worth is contingent on performing perfectly. Studies have also found that perfectionists have higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety.

So while certain aspects of perfectionism might be beneficial in the workplace, perfectionistic tendencies can also clearly impair employees at work. Does this make it a weakness?

In the workplace, perfectionism is often marked by low productivity and missed deadlines as people lose time and energy by paying attention to irrelevant details of their tasks, ranging from major projects to mundane daily activities. This can lead to depression, social alienation, and a greater risk of workplace “accidents”.Adderholdt-Elliot (1989) describes five characteristics of perfectionist students and teachers which contribute to underachievement: procrastination, fear of failure, an “all-or-nothing” mindset, paralysed perfectionism, and workaholism.

Researchers looked through four decades of study on perfectionism to answer a more

basic question: Are perfectionists better performers at work? They conducted a meta-analysis of 95 studies, conducted from the 1980s to today, that examined the relationship between perfectionism and factors that impact employees’ effectiveness. These studies included nearly 25,000 working-age individuals.

Taken as a whole, the research results indicate that perfectionism is likely not constructive at work. They did find consistent, modestly-sized relationships between perfectionism and variables widely considered to be beneficial for employees and organizations (i.e., motivation and conscientiousness). Yet critically, we found no link between perfectionism and performance. This, coupled with the strong effects of perfectionism on burnout and mental well-being, suggests perfectionism has an overarching detrimental effect for employees and organizations. In other words, if perfectionism is expected to impact employee performance by increased engagement and motivation, then that impact is being offset by opposing forces, like higher depression and anxiety, which have serious consequences beyond just the workplace.

Taking measures to better manage perfectionists will become a bigger managerial priority. One study of nearly 42,000 young people around the world found that perfectionism has risen over the last 27 years. Striving to be perfect is not overly beneficial for employees and has significant costs for employees and organizations. Instead of encouraging employees to be “perfect,” we might be better off with going for “good enough.”

Being highly motivated and a perfectionist may seem like dream attributes in an employee, but a new study suggests they could also backfire by contributing to workaholism.However, not not all kinds of perfectionism are alike when it comes to turning into a workaholic. What University of Kent researchers termed “self-oriented perfectionism,” which is when a person sets incredibly high standards for his or herself, was linked with workaholism, while “socially prescribed perfectionism,” which is when a person believes he or she needs to meet others’high standards to receive acceptance, was not.

“Our findings also suggest that workaholism in self-oriented perfectionists is driven by those types of motivation characterized by personal importance and ego involvement as well as being motivated by internal rewards and punishment,” study researcher Dr. Joachim Stoeber, who is the head of the School of Psychology at the university, said in a statement.The study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.All the study participants took tests gauging their perfectionism and work motivation, as well as their workaholism (work addiction).

Parenting and Perfectionist Children

When parents and teachers talk about perfectionism — usually in regard to gifted children they invariably ask, “How do we know if a child is a perfectionist and not just working hard?” Sometimes self-worth has become entangled with a narrowly defined sense of achievement (usually good grades and evaluations). A preoccupation with the expectations and judgments (real or imagined) from people around them has made these children their own worst critics. Such characteristics are indicators of perfectionism.

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What a perfectionist child stands to lose

The danger of perfectionism is that it disrupts children’s natural curiosity to learn and robs them of the joy they used to feel in the presence of a new discovery, inquiry, or invention. Sadly, these children often become chronic underachievers who are too afraid to take a risk or try anything new.

What Can Help?

The reach for perfection can be painful because it is often driven by both a desire to do well and a fear of the consequences of not doing well. This is the double-edged sword of perfectionism.

In general, you must treat your perfectionist schemas as hypotheses rather than facts. Maybe you are right or maybe you are wrong. Perhaps they apply in some situations, but not in others (at work, but not at home), or with some people, such as your uptight boss, but not with others, such as your new boyfriend. Rather than stating your schema as a fact, restate it as a suggestion. Gather evidence from your experiences in the past, from your observations from others, or by talking to other people. Do things always happen in a way that your schemas would predict? If not, it is time to try on a new belief.

Strategies That Can Help

1. Practice Radical Self-Acceptance. Perfectionists tend to be critical of others. It’s a defense mechanism that causes us to reject in others what we can’t accept in ourselves, and the more we pick at our shortcomings, the more we fixate on those of the people around us. These strong feelings come from idealizing the perfect person and life, and it’s a menacing filter we can’t seem to lift off of reality. To kick this habit, we must be kind to ourselves. So every morning, tell yourself something you love about yourself. Whatever it is that you choose, choose it for the day, and repeat it when you need that boost. Repeat it and believe it, and practicing that radical self-love beats the hell out of the alternative of living a hard-hearted, locked-down, and unforgiving life.

2. Create and Trigger Rituals.As perfectionists, we’re afraid of so many things. Starting new projects, making the wrong life decision, choosing a partner — and each of them share this common denominator: fear of failing. It makes us indecisive and reliant on others to guide. As Twyla Tharp illustrates in The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life: A pro golfer may walk along the fairway chatting with his caddie, his playing partner, a friendly official or scorekeeper, but when he stands behind the ball and takes a deep breath, he has signaled to himself it’s time to concentrate. By making the start of the sequence automatic, they replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine.

3. Lower the Stakes.Constantly basking in the glow of anticipation, we put so much pressure on ourselves to have fun — no, the most fun that’s ever been had in the history of fun-having. It’s too much. It’s unreasonable to place those demands on ourselves, and we end up bitterly emerging from events and get-togethers, giving off the impression that we have someplace better to be, with people who are far more interesting. It’s bad form and has the potential to destroy relationships. So, lower the stakes. There’s fun to be had, but you have to allow yourself to let it in. Ridding “should” from your vocabulary helps, too.

4. Be Grateful for and Proud of What You’ve Done. Few of us end up becoming what we sketched out in crayons when we were five; Whoever we are, it’s unlikely that we’re who we thought we’d be. And perfectionists, in particular, need to come to terms with that. Since we struggle with these notions of not being enough or never amounting to anything, we need to find consistent comfort in our skin and pride in our accomplishments. So keep a list. Write down what you’ve accomplished this week, month, or year, and see your worth come alive on paper.

5. Understand Your Own Definition of Perfection.Each time you sit down to complete a new project, ask yourself: “What does being ‘perfect’ mean to me in this situation?” You’ll probably have a few realistic and fair goals wrapped under the perfection umbrella — like making sure your cover letter is free of spelling mistakes and includes targeted messaging for the job you’re applying for. But, your definition of perfection might also include a few sneaky goals that are unattainable or totally out of your control, like “Make the employer like me better than any of the other candidates.”

6. Explore Ways to Bring More Openness and Vulnerability to Your Work. Brené Brown, a researcher once wrote, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” Vulnerability may feel uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, learning how to be vulnerable will put you more ahead of the game — in both your life and business — than striving for perfection ever will.

7. Break a Perfectionism-Procrastination Connection. When perfectionism and procrastination combine, you can be your own worst enemy. By freeing yourself from this complex process, you can better use your time to accomplish more with less stress. If you dread the thought of performing poorly, and experience anxiety, what you fear is based on what you think of yourself if you fail, or how others may judge you. You see your performances as successes or failures and measures of your personal worth. This contingent-worth anxiety thinking is a form of dichotomous thinking. According to this judgmental process, you are a winner or a loser, worthy or worthless, strong or weak. For example, you expect and demand at least a B+ grade. The goal is reasonable.

Summary: There is a substantial compelling evidence that for the most part shows perfectionism is a negative characteristic and set of behaviors, and in the most severe forms is harmful to one’s mental and emotional health. You must make a distinction between striving for excellence which is doing the best you can which is both desirable and healthy vs. perfectionism which can clearly be harmful.

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