Here's How Perfectionism Is Hurting You

by Pamela J. Hobart

"Perfectionism" might be a convenient and flattering answer for the dreaded job interview question about your weaknesses, but it's actually also a real personality trait with very real upsides and downsides for its beneficiaries (or sufferers). From the annals of Common Sense That's Now Been Proven By Science, behold a new study suggesting that perfectionism leads to burnout in one's professional and personal life. So, hey, maybe your sloppiness is sort of a good trait after all.

The Society for Personality and Social Psychology did a meta-analysis of 43 pre-existing studies on perfectionism, all of which were conducted in the most recent two decades. The emerging picture of perfectionism shows exactly how it's a double-edged sword. "Perfectionistic strivings" constitute the benefit of perfectionism: these impulses encourage their bearers to pursue goals in a pro-active way instead of just letting life happen to them, a trait which often results in more happiness.

But perfectionists are also prone to "perfectionistic concerns" about comparing themselves to others and unrealistic standards, letting other people down, and, well, being perfect. Chronic perfectionistic concerns cause stress (and resulting health problems), and interfere with relationships. They also lead to burnout, because people only have the capacity to care so much before they turn cynical and withdrawn.

At work, you're especially prone to burnout, because the rewards for perfect performance are often few and far between. Try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, although it's easier said than done. Remember that failures are opportunities for learning, even if they don't always feel that way. Your goals need to be set realistically in the first place, so that non-failures don't accidentally end up feeling like disasters.

And if you're having trouble putting it all in perspective, don't be afraid to see a cognitive-behavioral therapist to work on your perfectionism. There are ways to reduce those perfectionistic concerns in the long run, which will save you from a life spent tragically obsessing over your performance (or underachieving from burnout) when everyone else is happily coasting along doing just OK work.

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