Whilst an element of perfectionism can be a good thing, the paradox to perfectionism is that in the pursuit of excellence these standards can get in the way of our happiness. AMELIA FLORES-KATER explores how perfectionism can actually ‘impair’ our performance.
Laura, 32, is an Accountant. Work takes up a large part of her life. Laura is very passionate about her job and takes it very seriously. She also studies and reads outside of work about work related topics, so that she can be “on her game” and up to date with all new practices, sometimes resulting in her using her weekend time or socialising time, working. Even when Laura’s has a “win” at work, she tends to be self-critical, thinking of the tasks she failed to complete, and she makes a vow to work harder next time. When she doesn’t achieve a goal at work, she becomes very frustrated and will often criticise herself and her own performance. This has been noted by her team members, making her unapproachable. Difficult to talk to, and with her focused approach, she lacks teamwork and the ability to delegate tasks to others, choosing to complete all tasks herself. Recently Laura has lost confidence in herself and in an attempt to gain back her confidence, she is pushing herself harder, choosing to work even longer hours, reading more and recently has enrolled in a university course. In addition, she has chosen to decline various social engagements, so that her full focus can be on work performance and achievements. Just the other day Laura’s manager pulled her aside and told her to change her attitude and to work more closely as a team with her colleagues.
This is a common scenario in our modern day working life. It has become expected that we continue to meet high standards, avoid errors and constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve our performance. In fact, some perceive that meeting all these objectives result in us being “professional”. It is considered normal for us to want to strive for excellence in our work performance, and having a perfectionist approach to work can help, as it can aid us to ‘get things right’, to show a great work ethic and to build a reputation as a professional. Further, in some professions, perfectionism is imperative to the job, such as doctors or medical staff in emergency situations.
Whilst an element of perfectionism can be a good thing, the paradox to perfectionism is that in the pursuit of excellence and setting high standards for ourselves, these standards can get in the way of our happiness and can actually ‘impair’ our performance. Taken to extremes perfectionism can seriously compromise your own and others’ productivity at work. It can, in extreme situations, lead to mental health issues that can be detrimental to our overall wellbeing.
So…what is perfectionism? A general definition of Perfectionism is a person who wants everything to be perfect and demands the highest standard possible. According to the Black Dog Institute, perfectionist individuals try to do everything well and work hard and methodically, committing themselves to achieving their full potential.
When do you know perfectionism is becoming a problem?
Perfectionist individuals can be very hard on themselves, and when a failure occurs or they have been publically exposed as failing, there catastrophic thinking can lead to procrastination and immobilize them to function, that is, often not being able to attend to work decisions or tasks, disengaging from team members or social environments and in worse case scenario’s, developing depressive symptoms which impact on normal functioning.
In a recent article “Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A MetaAnalysis”, by Andrew Hill (York Saint John University) and Thomas Curran (University of Bath) published in June 2015, “perfectionism is a combination of exceedingly high standards and a preoccupation with extreme self-critical evaluation”. This article highlighted research findings which supported that, “perfectionistic concerns capture self-evaluative tendencies that render individuals vulnerable to the accrual of stress” and work burnout.
So…How do we keep our perfectionism in check?
Firstly, identify perfectionist tendencies and thoughts, highlighting the positives impacts of setting high standards but also the negative aspects of this in terms of current work performance. Secondly, identify alternate ways to perform at work and to complete work tasks without the use of harmful self-criticism – using your strengths in your abilities rather than negative self-talk. Lastly, be aware of elevated depression or stress reactions at work and manage them.
Overall, having high standards in terms of work performance and achievement is a positive attribute to have, but if these standards are perfectionistic and selfcritical, the impact of this on personal wellbeing and happiness can have a negative response and can be detrimental to how you perform at work.
Black Dog Institute “Paralyzed by Perfectionism”, Professor Gordon Parker, Medical Observer, 5 August 2005
“Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis”, by Andrew Hill (York Saint John University) and Thomas Curran (University of Bath) published in June 2015, article in “Personality and Social Psychology Review”