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The Perils of Perfectionism


What’s the point of doing something if it isn’t done well - right?

Can you imagine delivering a piece of work to a client that was full of mistakes?


How about arriving to deliver a presentation, 20 minutes late and ill-prepared?


Or what about the in-laws arriving for Christmas, the house a mess and no food in?

No, me neither!

For those of us with perfectionistic tendencies, the above scenarios are likely to send a shudder down your spine.

We perfectionists are highly organised, have high standards and know how to get a job done and done well. We set the proverbial bar high for ourselves, and for others, and can be relied on to deliver to a consistently high standard. Qualities that everyone should aspire to … or should they?

Whilst these may seem like admirable traits, those with perfectionist tendencies are more prone to anxiety and stress than their less perfectionistic counterparts, and are not always the high achievers they appear to be.


What is Perfectionism?

A textbook definition of a perfectionist is “someone who strives for or demands the highest standards of excellence”.


“Nothing wrong with that” I hear you say, and I concur.

However, in reality, it is considerably more complex than that.

Perfectionism comes with both positive and negative aspects i.e. it can be both adaptive and maladaptive.

In its adaptive form it can provide the motivation to achieve goals, or complete an activity to a high standard, when needed.

If a job genuinely needs to be done to a high standard, then someone with perfectionistic tendencies is your man, or woman. If I had to face the operating table, I would want the surgeon to be someone who was a stickler for detail and was aiming for a 110% outcome.

In its maladaptive form perfectionism can result in striving for unreasonable, and at times unattainable, goals. It can also come with a high degree of pressure and stress.

Add a dose of maladaptive perfectionism to an event, such as hosting Christmas Dinner, and it won’t be long before you find your stress levels, and budget, being unnecessarily blown through the roof!


Maladaptive versus Adaptive Styles


One way to determine which category perfectionistic traits fall into, is to compare them with maladaptive versus adaptive styles. Have a read through the table below and highlight the characteristics that are most like you:


Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale


Another option is to explore a scale developed by two psychologists, Hewitt and Flett, whose research suggests that there are 3 types of perfectionism: Self-Oriented, Other-Oriented and Socially-Prescribed.

Self-Oriented

Those with self-oriented perfectionism hold high standards for performance. They are conscientious and have greater work productivity and career success.

Other-Oriented

Those with other-oriented perfectionism are more likely to inflict high standards on others and can have trouble delegating - no one can do it as well as they can of course!

Consequently, they may come across as being overtly judgmental and critical, which can have a negative impact on their working and interpersonal relationships.

Socially-Prescribed

As the name suggests, the standards set for this type of perfectionism come from external sources – other people and society in general.

The sense of pressure felt in managing or maintaining perspective, in terms of negative feedback and criticism, and in the ability to measure up, can be considerable. It has been linked to anxiety, depression and even suicide.

If this scale is an area of interest, you may like to analyse your traits against the multidimensional perfectionism scale.


Perfectionists are less effective

From the outside looking in, perfectionists may appear:

  • well groomed

  • to have immaculate homes

  • highly organised

  • to be excellent at their jobs

The list goes on…


However, they are not always the high achievers they would have you believe they are, or they are perceived to be.


I have heard these characters likened to swans – they may look like they are gliding effortlessly through life but, underneath the surface, they are pedalling like hell to stay afloat.


There are many ways that perfectionism, the maladaptive kind that is, can make one less effective.

Let’s explore 5:


1. Perfectionists procrastinate

Whilst procrastination may seem paradoxical to perfectionism, it is not uncommon for the two to go hand in hand.

The fear of not being able to deliver something to a high enough standard, or being judged critically, may result in those with perfectionistic tendencies running for the hills.

One way this can show up is leaving an activity until the absolute last minute.

“I did the best I could with the time I had”

What a perfect antidote.

2. Perfectionists take longer

It makes sense that if you want something to be perfect it is likely to take longer, than if you are okay for it to be less than perfect.

A double whammy to this is, in fear of being judged for taking too long, a perfectionist may hide the amount of time and effort exerted.

“It was nothing” they will say. Even though they may have burnt the midnight oil to get it done.

Imagine this in a work setting. A job done to an extremely high standard, in a perceived short period of time, is likely to result in more work being passed their way.

Add to this a likely inability to say no or ask for help, otherwise they may appear inefficient or inadequate, and the pursuing pressure and long hours is a recipe for burnout.

3. Perfectionists avoid things

I’ve heard it said that some people fear delivering a presentation more than they fear death.

I used to get nervous, before delivering a presentation, and would do my best to avoid them.

I would sit there in the front row, waiting for my turn to speak, my heart pumping in my chest, a knot in my stomach and a lump in throat - as I sat desperately trying to remember what I had planned to say!

Whilst there can be many reasons for this, and ways of tackling it, for me it was rooted in perfectionism. The desire to deliver the perfect presentation, the fear of making mistakes and not being perceived positively, was the primary cause of my excessive nerves.

Once I discovered this, I was able to reset my expectations. Being okay to be nervous and aiming for 80% saw my nerves diminish considerably.

This is just one scenario.

Not putting your name in the hat for that new job, missing out on participating in a social event, or trying that new hobby can all be seated in perfectionism.

4. Perfectionists don’t work well with others

No one likes a perfect pants, right?

Put a person with perfectionist tendencies into a group environment and it is likely to be game on. There is nothing like a desire to be, and do the best, to bring out one’s competitive nature.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition, the desire to win shouldn’t come at the cost of overtly criticising, demoralising or dismissing the contribution of others.

Whilst some perfectionists think nothing of critiquing others, they are not so good at taking it. To them negative feedback can feel like a personal attack and one that cuts deep. Criticise a perfectionist and they are likely to either get defensive, upset, or retaliate.

These maladaptive behavioural traits can also get in the way progression, particularly up the corporate ladder. An overtly competitive nature, an inability to prioritise or delegate effectively, and tendencies to micro-manage are not the desirable traits of a good leader.

It really is an oxymoron that one of the drivers of a perfectionist is to be perceived highly and yet it can result in the absolute opposite.

At their worst, perfectionists can come across as self-serving, controlling, nit-picking, unreasonable, unapproachable, defensive, and generally difficult to work with. Ouch.

5. Perfectionists can’t make decisions

Decision making is a life skill and one we all need in order to lead a successful work and personal life.

Perfectionists are generally wary of making decisions for fear of getting it wrong and/or looking bad.

Perfectionists are also prone to ‘all or nothing thinking’, which can make it even more challenging to make decisions in two ways:

1. If a solution is unclear and/or there are many variables

2. Not budging if they believe they are right

No decision is of course a decision in itself.

So, not making decisions and making decisions are a breeding ground for error and judgement – the stuff that perfectionistic nightmares are made of.

So, to make a decision or to not make a decision.

Decisions - decisions!!


The causes of perfectionism


We all have things we like to do well, or times where we want to show up as our best self.

So, you could say that everyone has perfectionistic tendencies to some degree.

Perfectionism, in its adaptive form, can be a positive attribute.

So why does it get out of hand, become maladaptive, for some and not for others?

Here are a few thoughts and theories…

Not feeling good enough