None of us are strangers to “perfectionism” as a term or an idea. We might even have generally pleasant associations with it – after all, doesn’t it just mean paying attention to details and trying our best?
Sure, we might have friends or family members who seem especially “Type A.” They hate to fail and are always just a little bit stressed about the next thing on their plate.
Or maybe that doesn’t describe our family or friends. Maybe that describes US.
You get stuff done. People think of you as efficient, reliable and motivated. All of these are admirable qualities, and you feel like you’re just rising to the occasion.
But the stress might sometimes feel like more than a “little bit.” In fact, it can feel like a lot of stress, and it happens often.
So is perfectionism really all it’s cracked up to be? And is it worth putting in the time and effort to adjust our expectations and shift our thinking?
Should you really be focused on overcoming perfectionism?
Perfectionism by the numbers
According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism has been on the rise, especially for young people, since the 1980s.1 And that leaves a lot of adults struggling to meet some very high expectations – either their own or those of the perfectionists in their life.
Perfectionism isn’t a universally bad thing. Some studies have shown that people who show signs of adapative perfectionism might even live longer than their less-inclined peers.2
But most of the evidence suggests that, in general, perfectionism does more harm than good, leading to damaged self-esteem, strained relationships, and even poorer health outcomes.
What does perfectionism look like?
In our popular culture, perfectionism is almost accepted as a compliment. We think about perfectionists as people who strive to give 110% at all times. Our culture encourages and rewards this behavior.
But perfectionism becomes clinically significant when there is a consistent pattern of exaggerated worry over perceived errors and mistakes – and that worry is followed up by intensely negative self-talk and shame.3
Most people who show signs of perfectionism fall primarily into one of two camps:
An adaptive perfectionist is someone who is generally motivated by the high standards they set for themselves. They enjoy continuously developing their skills, and their standards for themselves rise as they gain experience and know-how. Adaptive perfectionists approach their goals with optimism and pleasant associations with the process learning and growing. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) classifies adaptive perfectionists as “excellence-seeking.”4
Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, have an intense fear of failure. They find it difficult to be satisfied with their achievements, and they dismiss results that are less than perfect. They tend to give up easily or generally lack interest in endeavors where they cannot be “the best” or the “winner.” They display a host of beliefs and behaviors as a result:
- Hold unrelenting and unrealistic expectations of themselves and others
- Critical but unable to handle feedback or criticism
- View mistakes as failures they must hide from others
- Spend lots of time planning and are prone to procrastination
- Avoid risks where success isn’t reasonably guaranteed
- Experience difficulty delegating tasks
Maladaptive perfectionists – “failure-avoiding,” according to HBR – experience increased anxiety and unhappiness and struggle with constant personal doubt and self-criticism. They have difficulty coping when they don’t meet their own high expectations.
While adaptive perfectionists feel good about their progress and achievements as they come, maladaptive perfectionists rarely do; their inability to meet the unrealistic standards they set for themselves overshadows any growth or development they might see.
Perfectionists’ self-worth is tied to their achievement, and this means they prefer to be actively working toward their goals at all times. But any thought patterns that drive you to pursue unrealistic standards will ultimately cause more trouble than they’re worth.
The drawbacks of perfectionism
Perfectionism isn’t a personality disorder in and of itself, but it leaves you vulnerable to a lot of things that won’t ultimately help you meet your goals: depression, anxiety and burnout, to name just a few.
And it can affect you in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.
Perfectionists often suffer from health problems like eating disorders, depression, migraines, anxiety, burnout, decreased energy, increased stress and relationship issues.
As a perfectionist, your self-esteem is linked to your achievements, so you might believe that everyone is judging you as harshly as you are – leaving you prone to feeling bad about yourself and your abilities and leaving you open to increased self-criticism, blame, self-sabotage and the dreaded Impostor Syndrome.
Perfectionists tend to dwell on minor details and often can’t bring themselves to start a task before they’ve identified the very best way to begin. But this can manifest as procrastination and decrease productivity overall.
Even your creativity is impacted. If avoidance of failure makes you hesitant to take risks without the guarantee of success, then you’ll tend to stay in your comfort zone more often than not – preventing yourself from being exposed to new experiences that might spark inspiration.
Perfectionism is both a pattern of behavior and how you think about that behavior.
Not only do perfectionists experience heightened concern over their mistakes and nearly relentless self-doubt, they tend to also be stuck in their ways. It can be difficult to get a perfectionist to change their perspective and think about overcoming perfectionism, even when the negative impacts are clear.
But challenging negative self-talk is critical, as those thoughts may turn into reality if you keep subtly and repeatedly talking yourself out of trying.
And if you live by unrelenting standards and a strict set of self-imposed rules meant to keep you on the straight and narrow, you might just find yourself burnt out entirely, sooner rather than later.
Perfectionism in the workplace
Perfectionism can be a tough thing to navigate in your personal life, and it’s equally as messy when it appears in the workplace.
It’s true – perfectionists do tend to be more motivated and engaged employees, and they work longer hours, too. But they also experience much higher rates of burnout, stress, anxiety and depression, which will undermine any of the benefits.5
And while everyone’s particular perfectionism footprint is unique, the outcomes tend to be the same: perfectionism does not lead to greater performance.
There are clear challenges to being a perfectionist as a leader.
Because signs of perfectionism are often displayed by high-performing people, it stands to reason that many managers, leaders and c-suite executives fit the bill. And perfectionism can certainly spark ambition and result in significant accomplishments.
But perfectionists can be difficult to work with and for:
- They’re overly-critical. Even if they’ve learned to reserve their harshest judgment for themselves only, they can still cause the morale of their teams to suffer. (“If he thinks that way of himself, what does he think of me?”)
- They leave opportunity on the table because they won’t take risks. Their fear of failure can impact both their own goals and the goals of their teams.
- They don’t handle feedback or criticism well, and they don’t fess up to mistakes. Staff may see them as unapproachable, leaving them further isolated at the top.
- They take on too much responsibility. Perfectionist managers often become bottlenecks in their organizations because their need for control means they struggle to delegate.
- They are prone to burnout, exhaustion and a lack of creativity. Simply put, they’ve worn themselves out and can no longer lead effectively.
It’s essential to create trust amongst teams,6 but perfectionists’ relationships are often strained, and trust can take a backseat.
You simply can’t perform optimally or fully inspire your team to do so if you are struggling with perfectionism.
Overcoming perfectionism is worth the effort it takes.
Perfectionism has entered the mainstream as a quirk, a quaint and charming characteristic that speaks to our desire to always do our best. By creating this caricature, however, we’ve left the perfectionists in our lives to the mercy of their unrelenting standards and self-defeating behaviors.
It might take some initial effort to overcome perfectionism, but ultimately, that effort will pay off in happier, healthier high-performers.