Worklife: Does striving for perfectionism lead to mental health struggles?

It can come from many places. For some it is an inherent personality trait, for others it may stem from what was modelled growing up

By Gurveen Ranger

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Published: Thu 16 May 2024, 5:50 PM

Do you find yourself to be hyper focused on details, find it hard to delegate tasks and hold exceptionally high standards for yourself? If so, you may be a perfectionist.Whilst often seen as a positive trait, perfectionism can also have a negative impact on our mental health, especially in professionals. There is nothing wrong with having high standards and paying attention to detail per se—in fact these traits may well have contributed to success and good social standing at work and personally; but it is the unintended consequences of these traits that usually lead people to seek help in my clinical practice.

Perfectionism can come from many places — for some it is an inherent personality trait, for others it may stem from what was modelled growing up, if praise was tied to success or there were high expectations for example —this may lead to a significant fear of failing. More generally, there are also some cultural and societal influences— those systems that value success and achievement may exacerbate perfectionist tendencies. The irony is that we strive to be perfect to feel successful but end up working so hard that we get so exhausted and feel anything but successful.

The unintended consequence of perfectionism also includes burnout. Those with high perfectionist traits tend to take on a lot, finding it almost impossible to delegate, have poorer work/life balance, all of which often leads to burnout. There is also an impact on self-esteem and mood for many people—because we are only human, we will make mistakes and there is only so much we can get done in a given day. So we may end up in a self-critical loop which reinforces feelings and perceptions of inadequacy. This is due to the rigidity of the belief system around perfectionism and standards. Things tend to be very black and white —it was perfect or it was terrible. If left unattended to, this can lead to depression.

Anxiety is also often very high in my clients with perfectionism, as the internally driven pressure to perform and keep on top of everything can feel overwhelming. For some, this can lead to a ‘freeze’ response, or ‘perfection paralysis’ where we avoid doing the task if we think or know we can’t do it perfectly. This avoidance then serves as another reinforcing loop / vicious cycle, especially if the driver for perfectionism is fear of failing.

More broadly, people with high perfectionist traits in the workplace can feel quite isolated and lonely, which has an impact on their mental health. It can be hard not to project our own high standards onto others or become frustrated when others do not meet our expectations, which can strain professional relationships.

It is important to recognise that not all perfectionist tendencies are inherently harmful. Only when the unintended consequences become too consuming, and the beliefs and behaviours coming from these tendencies become too rigid that problems arise. In my clinical practice, I work with many professionals to help them understand where such traits may stem from and why, and then develop strategies to increase flexibility and self-compassion for greater well-being.

Dr Gurveen Ranger is a clinical psychologist, adult specialist at Sage Clinics

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