STRESS
August 17, 2015

The Dark Side of Perfectionism

It's fine to want to do a really good job, but constant perfectionistic worry about being judged can bring burnout.

Doing your best — whether it's a report for work, on a test or on the field — is important to most people. But then why is it that perfectionism can often lead to burnout in the workplace, school and sports?

The problem isn't with having high personal standards. In fact having high standards and trying to maintain them — what the authors of a recent study call perfectionistic strivings — can sometimes offer protection against burnout.

The findings emphasize the dual nature of perfectionism: striving for perfection meant a slight reduction in the probability of burnout. But perfectionistic concerns about others' and one's own impossible standards increased the probability of burnout.

The darker side to perfectionism shows up when we worry endlessly about not measuring up to high standards, about mistakes or about letting others down. These “perfectionistic concerns” can set a person on the road to burnout and also contribute to other health problems such as depression and anxiety.

“Perfectionistic concerns capture fears and doubts about personal performance, which creates stress that can lead to burnout when people become cynical and stop caring,” said study co-author Andrew Hill. “It also can interfere with relationships and make it difficult to cope with setbacks because every mistake is viewed as a disaster.”

There is no universally accepted definition of burnout, but its symptoms include exhaustion (both physical and emotional), development of a cynical attitude and insecurity about one's personal competence.

While previous research had shown that perfectionistic concerns and the stress they produce can lead to serious health problems, the current study was a meta-analysis that looked specifically at the relationship between perfectionism and burnout, analyzing 43 published studies that had measured both in academic, athletic or workplace settings.

Learn to challenge the irrational beliefs that underlie perfectionistic concerns. Set realistic goals; accept failure as a learning opportunity; and forgive yourself when you fail.

Its findings emphasize the dual nature of perfectionism: striving for perfection meant a slight reduction in the probability of burnout. But perfectionistic concerns about others' and one's own impossible standards increased the probability of burnout, showing a medium-to-large-sized positive relationship with overall burnout and medium-sized positive relationships with all symptoms of burnout.

The strongest link was to burnout in the workplace. The authors suspect this is because an athlete can be rewarded by winning a match or having their team win a championship and a student can ace a test or be rewarded with a high grade. But rewards in the workplace are far less common.

If you want to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism, Hill, an associate professor of sport psychology at York St. John University in England, offers some straightforward advice: “People need to learn to challenge the irrational beliefs that underlie perfectionistic concerns by setting realistic goals, accepting failure as a learning opportunity, and forgiving themselves when they fail.”

It also helps to place a higher value on creativity, effort and perseverance than on recognized results. Developing a personality profile of those most likely to fall prey to perfectionistic concerns would also be a good way to help those prone to this way of thinking help themselves.

The study appears in Personality and Social Psychology Review.

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