7 Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism
Many of us believe perfectionism is a positive. However, researchers all over the world are finding that it has downsides if you let it take over: You waste time on relatively unimportant decisions and get excessively annoyed with yourself even over small mistakes. It increases resource costs, inhibits innovation, and ultimately affects business profits. What's more important, perfectionism leads people to a long list of health problems, low self-worth, depression, and even suicidality.
And it's on the rise! A study of over 41,000 people published in Psychological Bulletin found perfectionism has increased over time, partly because social media sends people down a rabbit hole of comparisons.
Let's explore some of the reasons why you shouldn't strive for perfection and how to get over perfectionism.
The Main Signs You May Be a Perfectionist
Perfectionism is something that everyone struggles with at some point or another. However, if you are prone to toxic perfectionism, you tend to:
#1. Have very high standards
Perfectionists strive for not only 100%, but for 150% success in everything they do, putting pressure on themself to meet high standards. If things aren't in line with the way they expect or plan them to be, it is likely they feel uncomfortable or feel the need to adjust things.
#2. Lack the ability to take criticism
Perfectionists usually react negatively to criticism because they equate negative feedback with failure. They often beat themselves up or might become defensive and lash out at their critics.
#3. Procrastinate frequently
Perfectionism is often linked to procrastination. You need to have ideal conditions otherwise you will hesitate to act or put it off thinking your mistakes will be the end of the world.
#4. Please others
Perfectionism often starts in childhood. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology in February 2021 highlighted stories of study subjects whose adverse childhood experiences led to perfectionistic tendencies in adulthood.
Those who've developed the mentality to always do their best eventually start defining themselves by their achievements. And, accordingly, they'll go out of their way to please colleagues and friends at any cost to receive praise.
#5. Be judgmental and critical of other people
This is a psychological defense mechanism. You reject in others what you can't face or accept in yourself.
Last but not least, you think you'll be happy when you reach your goal, but you are not: Either you're not satisfied with the result enough, or you are too exhausted to feel the joy of success.
Many famous people suffer from perfectionist disorder. For example, Newton demanded that his name be removed from a book cover where an error was found. Michelangelo considered his work incomplete until it met his internal high standards. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert could spend a week working on a single page of text and still be dissatisfied with the result.
7 Key Reasons Why Being A Perfectionist Is Bad
On one hand, being a perfectionist is a good thing: By paying attention to small details, the task appears to be more carefully worked out. But on the other hand, while spending hours working on one task or chasing after an abstract "perfection", you are wasting 90% of your time. And when it comes to toxic perfectionism, it can lead to serious mental disorders.
These are just the main problems provoked by unhealthy perfectionism:
- Poor productivity level. Due to excessive fixation on quality, perfectionists complete fewer tasks than their colleagues. This is proven by the research of a Canadian Doctor of Science and psychologist Simon Sherry. He measured the performance indicators of his employees and found out that teachers prone to perfectionism are less productive.
- Missing deadlines. Perfectionists work longer on a task and often postpone it until the "right" time.
- Inability to take risks and fear of testing new ideas. Moreover, anything, where success is not guaranteed, can be a risk. For example, finding a new job or using non-typical approaches in programming.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome and burnout. Obsessing about making mistakes or letting others down or holding yourself to impossibly high standards can have negative consequences. A large-scale study by the University of Bath showed that perfectionism has been linked to a laundry list of clinical issues such as chronic headaches, burnout, etc.
- Anxiety and depression. A constant risk of feeling like your results and achievements are not good enough can lead to negative emotions such as depression, self-harm, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and the most detrimental of them all, suicide. While conscientious people tend to live longer, perfectionists usually die earlier.
- Weak creativity. Trying to achieve perfection can interfere with creativity, originality, and spontaneity.
- Inability to delegate. Being a perfectionist often means you have a hard time delegating tasks. At the same time, not delegating when you need to can cause all kinds of problems for your business and stress yourself.
How to Make Your Perfectionism an Effective Tool, Not a Trap
Here are some suggestions to correct toxic perfectionism:
- Set realistic, flexible, and smaller goals. Eat the elephant in pieces, don't try to swallow the whole animal at once. Instead of stressing yourself out by trying to achieve one massive goal, set multiple smaller and more attainable goals.
- Learn how to allocate time to complete tasks. Perfectionists often simply don't realize that different tasks require different amounts of time and effort. To rank cases in order of importance, you can use the following technique:
▫️ Investment tasks: profitability is high, and the time spent will pay off handsomely.
▫️ Neutral tasks: you get what you put in (for example, meetings with employees or standard reports).
▫️ Optimized tasks: the result does not depend on the time spent (an example is parsing email).
By categorizing tasks, you will determine what you should devote more time to. If checking emails is one of the optimized tasks, you shouldn't reread and rewrite the email 3–4 times: This time is crucial for the first group of tasks.
We've highlighted a few questions to help you determine which category a particular task should fall into:
“Is it important for me? If yes, how much?”
“Is it worth doing the task at a high level? Will the effort pay off?”
“What is the minimum set of actions?”
“How much time do I have for this task?”
- Consider failure as feedback. “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” — the author of this quote, Thomas Edison, on his long road to inventing the light bulb, had “failed” 10,000 times. But instead of seeing each failure as “mistakes”, he saw them as necessary steps on the way to his main goal. Consider that the road to your goals often has its bumps and turns.
- Learn to treat yourself like a friend. You wouldn't say to a friend who has made a mistake and needs your support, “Holy cow, how could you do that?” Most likely, you would find a way to support him. Try to have a look at yourself through the eyes of your best friend. How would you support him?
- Be proud of everything you've accomplished (even if it is not the greatest result). Write down your accomplishments in a journal regularly. Reward yourself for each completed step towards the goal — order your favorite dessert, go to the cinema, or arrange a SPA weekend with your besties.
Finally, deal with the fact you can't plan everything. There is a phenomenon called “Analysis paralysis” in the business. Over-analyzing or over-planning causes “paralysis” of movement or decision-making. In the end, you may never take the first step and start working. It's more efficient to have some kind of draft, which you will refine later instead of spending most of the time thinking through each step.
Even the smartest and most ambitious professionals can get derailed by too-high standards. Pause or reset your expectations, and focus on being your best self and enjoying the journey. Remember today is a great day to accept being perfectly imperfect!