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Perfectionism is Damaging, But Here’s What to Do

written by Ray Williams June 22, 2020
Perfectionism is Damaging, But Here's What to Do

Ray Williams defines perfectionism, outlines its various types, and compiles resources for learning more about the many aspects of perfectionism, including its damaging effects and what to do about it.

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 are high achievers – but the price they pay for success can be chronic unhappiness and dissatisfaction. – Carolyn Gregoire

Psychologist David Burns warns in a 1980 Psychology Today essay:

Reaching for the stars, perfectionists may end up clutching at air. [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. By contrast, adaptive perfectionism can motivate people to reach their goals and to derive pleasure from doing so.


To learn more about the research on perfectionism, a breakdown of contrasting types of perfectionism, and views on classifying the behavior, read this.

Types

According to psychologist Pavel G. Somov, there are four types of perfectionism:

The first three of these are essentially ‘software’ problems. The solution to ‘software-type’ perfectionism is ‘re-programming.’ The Hyper-Attentive type of perfectionism is a ‘hardware’ (brain) issue.

Read Dr. Somov’s overview of Neurotic Perfectionism, Narcissistic Perfectionism, Principled Perfectionism, and Hyper-Attentive Perfectionism here.

Why it’s Damaging

According to this article by Hara Estroff Marano on Psychology Today:

‘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.

Click here to keep reading about this concept.

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. – Carolyn Gregoire

Read her article, “14 Signs Your Perfectionism Has Gotten Out of Control” here.

Perfectionism and 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? – Brian Swider, et. al.

Read the rest of “The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism, According to Research” at Harvard Business Review.

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. – ISSUU

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. – Huffpost Wellness

Learn more about the relationship between perfectionism and workaholism here.

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. – Joan Franklin Smutny

Smutny’s article, “Preventing Perfectionism in Children,” highlights what a perfectionist stands to lose as well as what parents and teachers can do. Find it here. You can also find information on these topics here.

What Can Help?

According to Monica Ramirez Basco:

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.

Check out her article and more about what can help here.

Other Strategies

Check some out at Forbes and Psychology Today.

Summary:

The most important distinction that must be made is differentiating between striving for excellence/doing one’s best, which is a worthwhile goal and habit, versus being a perfectionist, which can be both harmful to self, others, and organizations. Perfectionism is not something you want to wish for or practice.

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Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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