Yes, There Is A Downside To Perfectionism
* This story was previously published on CLEO.com.my, August 2017, and has since been updated.
Can’t let go of that typo you made in that report? But you should. Detaching from those obsessions will save your career, your life … and your sanity.
Alicia (not her real name) is a 28-year-old lawyer who admits spending hours writing up a 500-word letter for a client isn’t all that uncommon for her. “I would probably spend two to three hours just drafting that letter, making sure that each word was correct,” she says. “Then I’d print it out, edit by hand, re-do and re-print it and continue doing that to make sure that everything was perfect, whether on my screen or on paper.”
If she’s ever asked a tricky question in a meeting she doesn’t know the answer to, Alicia admits that not having a response causes her stress levels to soar. “That ’s the kind of thing that I would continue to be stressed about for a week.” Alicia is without a doubt a dedicated employee, but she’s also a self-confessed perfectionist, something that goes beyond stressing over detail or performance. The world of a perfectionist is where exacting standards are the norm — there’s no room for error and making a mistake can often equate to a complete catastrophe.
WHAT DEFINES PERFECTIONISM?
Most people are perfectionists to some extent but it ’s when it manifests into a full-blown obsession that it starts to become a hindrance. Psychologist Jacqui Manning (thefriendlypsychologist.com.au) says perfectionists genuinely believe that they’re not allowed to make mistakes. For most of us, a stuff-up is easily forgotten; however, for a
perfectionist it incites feelings of anxiety and an inward response such as a racing heart or feeling sick.
This pattern of behaviour can start in childhood. Manning says a perfectionist might have been criticised in hurtful ways when they were a child or valued not for who they are but for their performance. It might also come from observing parents’ habits — if a parent is a perfectionist it can become a learned behaviour in the child.
The pain that stems from making a simple (yet easily fixable mistake) can reinforce a perfectionist way of thinking. “They feel the pain, then they work hard and manage to achieve their goals so that sets up their thinking that the only way that the pain will go away is if they get everything right,” explains Jacqui.
THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING PERFECT
While there are definitely some perfectionist traits that can be a plus in the workplace such as being detail-oriented, driven to accomplish tasks and do work that is of a very high standard, it can also manifest itself in less productive ways. “Often perfectionists are massive procrastinators. They can pay attention to detail but sometimes that can cause them to miss the big picture, which can sometimes be detrimental to their work.”
So what does anxiety feel or look like? Without warning you may find it difficult to be still and calm, have shortness of breath, feel your heart racing, tingling in your hands, overwhelming panic, you may sweat profusely and/or feel nauseated or faint.
As a realistic example, a perfectionist won’t like to hand in a report because they think that they might have made a big mistake,” says Jacqui. This all-or nothing approach can also often undermine their confidence. Alicia says that when something isn’t up to her standards or she feels she’s made a mistake, it can lead her to spiral into negative thinking.
“The first thought that generally comes to my mind is that I’m going to get fired. It’s very drastic I know, and completely unreasonable, but generally that ’s my first thought when I have done something wrong, followed by people are going to think I’m stupid and therefore, they will fire me next time,” Alicia explains.
“It ’s quite limiting because I’m not putting myself out there as much and it ’s just a vicious cycle in terms of my thought process.” Sounds draining …
TAKING BACK CONTROL
The levels of worry in a perfectionist can often be high and this can hinder their performance. “In the end, if you’re feeling better, it ’s going to free up energy and space to focus on your work,” says Jacqui, adding that it ’s crucial to learn how to reduce any anxious feelings by trying relaxation and breathing techniques, which can help slow down a racing heart rate and get brainwaves going in a more relaxed way.
As perfectionists tend to look at everything, including themselves critically, Jacqui suggests green light thinking to help use this critical eye in a more positive way— accepting all thoughts, writing them down and then coming back later to filter them.
“They can use their more critical eye and go ‘that ’s going to work, that ’s not going to work’. That critical thinking can be a skill.” It ’s a good idea for them to set aside time each day to worry (note: even if you’re not a perfectionist this is an effective technique to adopt).
Spending less time worrying and focusing on work will ultimately lead to a better output throughout the day. Seeking feedback, Alicia discovered, became helpful in keeping herself and her performance in perspective. “Just because I’m a perfectionist doesn’t mean that ’s what other people expect of me,” Alicia said. Yep, sometimes the key is to accept that sometimes good enough really is good enough.