Here’s Why Perfectionism Can Be Bad for Your Health

The dark side of being perfect.

Courtesy of Milan Fakurian via Unsplash.

Some of the most successful people in the world attribute their success to perfectionism. It is often regarded as a highly desirable personality trait, with the belief that the highest level of performance can be expected from that person. The greatest athletes in the world talk about having to maintain a level of perfectionism to achieve the success that they have. And some of the most celebrated musicians, performers and tech giants at the top of their game have made the same connection.

Employers might think this is exactly what they’re looking for in a potential employee, assuming anyone with perfectionism listed as a professional quality will be a hardworking, tenacious go-getter who won’t stand for anything less than precision. It might create a hint of competition among colleagues or in friendships – she’s a perfectionist, so she does things better than you.

It could be used as a humble brag in a job interview when asked to describe what you might need to work on. The inference being that, really, it’s one of your strengths and your potential employer can look forward to reaping the benefits of your laser-like focus and dedication to tasks. If only you didn’t care so much about doing the best job. Sigh. But what if I told you that true perfectionism actually does more harm than good? Would you be surprised? Keep reading to learn more.

The dark side of perfectionism

Having a low level of perfectionism or positive perfectionism can actually be a good thing and may be what drives those well-known hall-of-famers. Positive perfectionism often presents as high motivation and drive, and a strong desire to achieve and to succeed. However, what we know about high levels of perfectionism and, in particular, negative perfectionism is that it often has a significant detrimental effect on mental health.

One of the traits that we see in perfectionism is the tendency to set exceedingly high expectations that most often cannot be met. This usually goes hand in hand with having highly critical beliefs about yourself and of how others perceive you, as well as difficulty accepting criticism and adapting to change.
In fact, rather than fostering high levels of achievement, it’s very common for perfectionism to increase levels of procrastination and avoidance, which is part of the reason why it can be a barrier to change. Right alongside that stalling and delay can be a fear of failure that underlies the perfectionism. It’s not always just about becoming the best, but rather avoiding the personal impact of failure, whether real or perceived.

This very tangled web of self-defeat can have a significantly negative impact on mental health. Much of the research around perfectionism and mental health shows a direct correlation between true perfectionism and diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If we are constantly striving to be the best of the best and setting goals for ourselves that are not achievable, then the impact of that perceived failure can be devastating. In some cases, the personal expectations are so high that the wheels are perpetually spinning without any ability to launch. This can then become a vicious cycle of frustration and disappointment, which can become critical to a person’s wellbeing.

stress cortisol levels
Image: Courtesy of Simran Sood via Unsplash.

Just do it: how to break out of the perfectionism trap

To combat this, start to subscribe to the theory that done is better than perfect – words on the page, output that might not win awards, more achievable task lists. Reinforce that idea by practising being comfortable in the discomfort. The email wasn’t perfect, but it was sent. The essay wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. The job application wasn’t perfect, but it hit the main points.

Changing the narrative in your own mind about what ‘done’ looks like means also having to shift the perspective on yourself. Start by treating yourself as you would treat a friend. When you complete a task, congratulate yourself on the effort you made, rather than looking for things to critique. Try not to define your success by how well you might do something. The key is just to give something a go. When an opportunity arises, let go of the fourteen page pros and cons list, don’t look for mountains of evidence to substantiate throwing your hat into the ring, and release yourself from the focus on what others might think of you if you decide to try something new.

Challenge the thoughts that feed the perfectionism. This can feel like a tough habit to break; however, acknowledging that it’s an issue and actively stopping the problematic thought or behavior is already a big step towards breaking the cycle and relieving yourself of the pressure. Remember that practice makes perfect (pardon the pun). The internal measure of success will take some time to recalibrate, so use that positive reframing that you’re getting so good at now. Counter the negative thoughts about results and performance, judgement and criticism, with words that applaud attempts and effort.

Turn the fear of failure into being brave, making bold moves and attempting things before you have all the pieces of the puzzle. Actively engage with the thought that good enough really is good enough in most scenarios. Then celebrate the checking of that box – done! Not necessarily perfect, but done. Tick.

From her new book Embracing Change, therapist and host of The Curious Life podcast Jana Firestone shares her tips on how to stop perfectionism getting in the way of changing your life for the better. This is an edited extract from Embracing Change by Jana Firestone.

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