5 Reasons Why Perfectionism Can Make Us Ill
How Our Inner Perfectionist Can Push Us Into Exhaustion and Burnout
Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today
I see the best minds of my generation – including many of my clients – lost to perfectionism. But perfectionism is not just a harmless and often socially useful striving for excellence – it brings with it many dangers that are mental, physical and social in nature. Wishing to do the things we do as well as we can is an unequivocally positive desire. As is the appreciation of excellence. Both are expressions of care, conscientiousness, and engagement. They are also related to the admiration of quality and beauty – for excellence is their close cousin. We can understand excellence as beauty in action, as a form of applied and enacted splendor.
However, our appreciation of excellence can easily morph into an unhealthy and paralysing struggle to achieve perfection. How can we differentiate, then, between valuing excellence, and simply trying to do our best, and counterproductive perfectionism? What exactly is it that makes perfectionism so dangerous? And, if we tend to fall into the camp of those hunting perfection at all times, how can we control our inner perfectionist?
Perfectionism is commonly understood as a personality disposition. Perfectionists (I confess right here that I am one of them) aspire to the condition of faultlessness and often have excessively high standards for their own performance. Etymologically, perfectionism is related to the notion of completion. So we can see perfectionism as a desire always to produce the ultimate, best, and flawless version of something. That doesn’t sound so bad as such, and it is important to note that perfectionism is a spectrum and comes in different forms and guises – some of which are not at all negative.
I have come across a really helpful distinction in a recent study by Joachim Stoeber and Lavinia E. Damian.[i] They differentiate between “perfectionist striving” (that is, the desire to deliver excellent work and perform at the highest possible standard) and “perfectionist concerns.” This distinction is key. For the worm in the apple of perfectionism really is perfectionist concerns. Stoeber and Damian understand perfectionist concerns broadly as negative assessments of our performance – the inner judgements we generate after we have done something. These assessments are associated with “concerns over making mistakes, fear of negative evaluation by others, feelings of discrepancy between one’s expectations and performance, and negative reactions to imperfection.”[ii]
As the authors argue, perfectionist concerns are typically associated with “negative characteristics, processes, and outcomes (e.g., neuroticism, avoidant coping, negative affect).” These fall into the category of “maladaptive” strategies. Perfectionist strivings, by contrast, are associated mainly with positives – including conscientiousness, problem-solving, and enjoyable emotions. Perfectionist striving thus has a positive, “adaptive” component and can help us thrive.[iii]
In plainer language, what makes perfectionism psychologically dangerous is that it tends to be accompanied by an overly critical evaluation of our own performance. Research has also shown that perfectionists have a lower tolerance of ambiguity. Alongside flawlessness, we crave certainty. That, combined with our often unrealistic high standards, can, ironically, make us less productive and efficient at work.[iv]
Here are the 5 key reasons why perfectionism (especially of the evaluative kind) is dangerous and can make us ill:
1) Perfectionistic concerns are associated with negative self-talk and harsh judgements of our performance. Our inner perfectionist can easily turn into an inner critic, even an inner saboteur or torturer. If we lack compassion and a healthy appreciation of our own skills, constantly dragging our own achievements and accomplishments into the mud, our inner life will become a major stressor in its own right. We can become our own worst enemy.
2) Perfectionists not just strive for high performance throughout, but also have an unhealthy relationship to mistakes. We do not see mistakes as teachers, or failure as a learning opportunity, but live in constant fear of failure and negative reactions from others to our perceived imperfection.[v] In other words – and again this is ironic – although we strive for perfection, we often don’t tend to have a proper growth mindset. We admonish ourselves terribly for any perceived failures, and also fear punishment by others. That tendency can be so strong that we resort to avoidance behaviour. Sometimes, we won’t even try, or can’t let go of our work because we are not happy with it.
3) Perfectionists also have a tendency to worry and ruminate about work. We find it really difficult, often even impossible, to switch off from our tasks. Work-related anxieties tend to intrude into our leisure time. This tendency in particular negatively affects our work-life balance, our health, and our overall well-being.[vi]
4) Perfectionism is often correlated with workaholism. Workaholism is defined as an excessive need to work that interferes with our bodily health, personal happiness, and interpersonal relations. It is associated with low levels of psychological wellbeing and high levels of emotional distress. Workaholism can have a seriously negative impact on our health and longevity, because workaholics tend not to get enough leisure time, exercise, and sleep.[vii] In other words, workaholism is pretty ruinous at all levels – mentally, physically, and socially. It is worth remembering that our work-life balance is a powerful indicator of our individual health and well-being.[viii] For many of us, this will be a scary thought.
5) Perhaps unsurprisingly, perfectionists are at a much higher risk of burnout.[ix] Perfectionism leads us to work harder, or even to work all the time, to judge what we do harshly, and to live in fear of negative assessments or even punishment from others for our perceived failings. It can thus lead to extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, to diminished personal efficacy, and to a loss of faith in our ability to do our jobs at all.
If we go deeper, and explore the origins of our perfectionism, we will probably find that evaluative perfectionism has its roots in our childhood. Most perfectionists probably had parents with extremely high standards, were made to feel that we were never good enough, or received a kind of love that was conditional and dependent on achievement. We often tend to internalise overly critical voices from our past, and they can become quite dangerous to our health and emotional wellbeing later in life.
In addition, I also think that individual perfectionism is a consequence of a wider cultural malaise – that we are all affected by the fetishization of productivity, efficiency, and, yes, perfection, around us. Perfectionism is also the upshot of a society based on the principle of competition.
I wonder how we can disempower our inner perfectionist in such a way that we keep its positive qualities and energies alive. For these matter. I wouldn’t really want to let them go. Might it be possible for us to have our perfectionist cake and eat it? Could we somehow continue to strive for excellence, in theory and practice, but simply not judge ourselves too harshly if we don’t achieve it? Can we find a way to switch off our “evaluative perfectionism” only? My hope is that we can embrace a paradox and learn to become, to paraphrase Donald Winnicott, “good enough” perfectionist. Perfectionists who genuinely try their best, but are much more gentle and forgiving without ourselves about the less than perfect results.
References [i] Stoeber, J., & Damian, L. E. “Perfectionism in employees: Work engagement, workaholism, and burnout.” In F. M. Sirois & D. S. Molnar (Eds.), Perfectionism, health, and well-being. (New York: Springer, 2016), pp. 265–83. [ii] Ibid. [iii] See Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. “Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges.” Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10 (2006), 295-319. [iv] See, for example, Sherry, S. B., Hewitt, P. L., Sherry, D. L., Flett, G. L., & Graham, A. R. “Perfectionism dimensions and research productivity in psychology professors: Implications for understanding the (mal)adaptiveness of perfectionism.” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 42 (2010), 273-283. [v] See Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. “Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges.” Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10 (2006), 295-319. [vi] See, for example, Flaxman, P. E., Ménard, J., Bond, F. W., & Kinman, G. “Academics’ experiences of a respite from work: Effects of self-critical perfectionism and perseverative cognition on postrespite well-being.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 97 (2012), 854-865; and Mitchelson, J. K. “Seeking the perfect balance: Perfectionism and work-family conflict.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82 (2009), 349-367. [vii] See, for example, Burke, R. J. “Workaholism in organizations: Psychological and physical well-being consequences.” Stress Medicine, 16 (2000), 11-16; Snir, R., & Harpaz, I. “The workaholism phenomenon: A cross-national perspective.” Career Development International, 11 (2006), 374-393; and Ng, T. W. H., Sorensen, K. L., & Feldman, D. C. “Dimensions, antecedents, and consequences of workaholism: A conceptual integration and extension. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 28 (2007), 111-136. [viii] Matuska, K. M. “Workaholism, life balance, and well-being: A comparative analysis.” Journal of Occupational Science, 17 (2010), 104-111. [ix] Stoeber, J., & Damian, L. E. “Perfectionism in employees: Work engagement, workaholism, and burnout.” In F. M. Sirois & D. S. Molnar (Eds.), Perfectionism, health, and well-being. (New York: Springer, 2016), pp. 265–83.
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