The cost of perfectionism.

Lots of us don’t believe there’s anything really wrong with perfectionism. It’s always trotted out as the clever response in interviews by high-achievers asked about any personal faults they may have as if it were something to be not so secretly proud of. A humble brag. It’s an extreme form of behaviour but ultimately beneficial, right? Perfectionism equals going above and beyond the call of duty, producing excellence, caring more and being better than the rest. What could be wrong with that in terms of achieving high standards, advancing your work prospects and progressing in your career?

Well, it’s certainly true that a lot of high achievers are perfectionists. Many of the senior lawyers I coach fit this bill. They might attribute their success to their exacting standards and to the fact that they are dedicatedly working harder or longer than others to achieve the best results that they possibly can. Their perfectionism makes them driven, disciplined and conscientious. These are all attributes that are highly prized in the law profession. And let’s face it – what successful law firm has ever demanded anything less than perfection and excellence from its employees?

Research has shown that perfectionism can indeed be a positive for some. Defined as being ‘adaptive’ perfectionists, these people get huge satisfaction from maximum effort and from achieving high standards – with good psychological outcomes including high levels of motivation and self-esteem. They are self-aware, understand their strengths and weaknesses and can regulate their emotions accordingly. If this is you – all well and good! For many of us, however, perfectionism can have a much more sinister side. 

‘Maladaptive’ perfectionism is what we’re talking about here. Maladaptive perfectionists have the same super high standards (for themselves and others), and driven approach – but with negative psychological consequences. Instead of taking pride in their conscientiousness and high standards, maladaptive perfectionists can be extremely self-critical, fearful of failure and are easily discouraged. The constant striving for perfection and positive feedback can make them exhausted, anxious and depressed. Ringing any bells?

So many high-achievers have experienced this sort of perfectionism – myself included! Is this you, too? These are the signs to look out for:

  • You struggle to finish tasks (you feel they are never quite good enough).
  • You procrastinate – perhaps you avoid or delay taking on tasks if you’re not sure you can do them perfectly or they involve you doing something you haven’t done before.
  • You take longer to complete a task than is necessary or appropriate.
  • You hate to make mistakes and see them as a sign of your personal flaws.
  • You fear failure.
  • You view the end product or achievement of a task as more important than the process.
  • You feel dissatisfied with yourself and your life.
  • You are highly self-critical and critical of others who don’t meet your own high standards.

There are many reasons that lots of people feel this way. A history of high achievement can lead to feelings of intense pressure to ‘live up to’ those previous standards. Perhaps the need to excel comes from a place of insecurity? Or from parental expectations or excessive criticism? Whatever the root cause, its clear that this constant striving for perfection can have a huge cost.

These are the pitfalls of perfectionism: 

  • It’s bad for your mental health. Studies show that anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation are linked with excessive perfectionism.
  • It curbs creative thinking. Perfectionists need certainty – thinking ‘outside the box’ and innovating means taking chances or trying something new or different. This means there is a risk of failure which a perfectionist cannot tolerate.
  • It stunts personal growth and performance. Not your height of course!! But perfectionists don’t risk criticism or failure. They do not want to open themselves up to potential negative feedback. But feedback is, of course, how we learn and grow – and ultimately how we go on to perform better and achieve more. (See my blogs on negative feedback and the joy of growing here).
  • It’s unproductive. Taking 2 days to complete a task ‘perfectly’ that could and should be done in 1 is unproductive – for you, and for your company. Does the task actually need to be perfect – or would excellent, or good enough be sufficient?
  • It negatively impacts your work/life balance. As working parents, we all know that this is the holy grail. But it’s simply not possible to achieve if you are constantly holding yourself (and others) to excessively high standards. If you are unable to delegate, or need to take too long to complete tasks, or require everyone to see you as perfect, you risk burnout and constant dissatisfaction. 

Perfectionism, then, is not really excellence, or having high standards. It is in reality often used as a weapon to beat ourselves up with, or as a barrier against judgement or shame. As such, it does us no favours – in our personal lives, in our careers and in our attempts to find balance. If you feel you could do with a helping hand to change these types of behaviours, tune into this week’s podcast, episode #37 where I’ll be sharing my strategy for countering perfectionism.