Perfectionists Beware: You May be Headed for Burnout

by Gary Gilles


perfectionWhen I think of someone I would call a perfectionist, I envision a person with impossibly high standards who relentlessly pursues their goals. While it is a positive trait to have high standards and goals, a perfectionist is driven by more than goal achievement. Behind the quest for achievement and success is a fear of failure and a desperate need for affirmation. This person might say: “If I do this project perfectly, then no one will be disappointed or be critical of me.” The problem though is the success of one project leads to future projects with similarly unrealistic expectations and the cycle self-perpetuates.

Health concerns

Previous research has shown that people with perfectionistic tendencies are prone to significant health problems that include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, fatigue and even early death. A recent study adds to this list the risk of physical or mental collapse (otherwise known as burnout) for those who push themselves beyond reasonable limits. And it’s not just an issue in the workplace. Burnout stemming from unrealistic standards extends to the sports arena, school, the creative arts and even home life.

Setbacks are unacceptable

The insidious part of perfectionism is that setbacks are viewed as “failures.” The unconscious goal of perfectionists is to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible and replace it with predictable outcomes. Again, there is a kernel of benefit here. Each of us wants to minimize the mistakes we make and maximize our chances of succeeding at what we attempt. But, when things don’t work as planned, the perfectionist hasn’t just failed at the task. They personalize it by believing they are a failure. This response is closely tied to shame; the feeling that I am deficient or defective.

In contrast, setbacks are better seen as a normal part of the learning process, especially when learning a new or complicated skill. Mistakes and even failures can be seen as opportunities to improve and grow. Virtually every successful business person will tell you that their struggles or failures were their best teachers for eventually finding success. The only difference, many of them will say, between those who succeed and those who don’t is the ability to get back up and try again after a setback. This requires resilience and flexibility and a refusal to let shame derail your learning process. You can never be resilient when setbacks are an extension of your self-worth.

Relationships need flexibility

Perhaps the most damaging blow of perfectionistic tendencies is on relationships. Relationships thrive in a fluid, flexible environment. You may have noticed that people make mistakes, miscommunicate, are late, get sick, cancel plans, are unreasonable and regularly disappoint others. This is true in business as it is in personal affairs. In other words, people are far from perfect. Meaningful relationships arise from a fluid and flexible give-and-take environment that extends grace, forgiveness, compassion, empathy and honesty.

Perfectionists often struggle in relationships because they apply the same unrealistic standards to others that they hold for themselves. These expectations replace the fluidity that could nurture the relationship with rigid rules that must be adhered to. Favor in these types of relationships is dependent on how well you keep the rules and maintain order instead of how much you care or forgive.

Is there hope?

Can perfectionistic tendencies be changed? Yes. For starters, perfectionistic people could begin by being kinder to themselves. If you are one of these people, give yourself permission to fail or make mistakes. See setbacks as part of the learning process of getting better at what you do. Think of setbacks as “practicing” your craft just as a musician practices their instrument. The more you practice them better you become. When you can learn to extend grace to yourself, it will be easier to extend the same grace to others. And when you can do that on a regular basis, you have created a fluid landscape for meaningful relationship to thrive.

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