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The Downside of Perfection: 7 Traits to Tame

These 7 characteristics of perfectionism interfere with your health & happiness

Is perfectionism an issue for you? It’s hard to escape its grip in our modern world that glamorizes perfect parenting, perfect relationships, and perfect beauty (which will be fully on display at the Oscars tonight).

For many years, I equated success with perfection. At school, I couldn’t settle for grades that weren’t A’s; in sports, it was important for me to not only win, but to also be selected all-conference or voted most valuable on my team. I achieved because I craved my parent’s and teachers’ praise and didn’t want to let them down. What I understand now is that my perfectionism was a shield – a way to not have to expose my true self and vulnerabilities. In reality, the school and work pressure really got to me – but I didn’t want anyone to see that.

I carried this rigid standard with me and put tremendous pressure on myself in the process until two events helped me to more fully understand the downside of perfectionism. The first was that I burned out seven years into my law practice. The hustle to be perfect caught up with me, and I ended up changing careers to do the work I do now. The second was my work with Army drill sergeants. I taught resilience skills to soldiers after getting my master’s degree, and the soldiers helped me to drop my perfectionism shield. It wasn’t anything they said outwardly, but it was a gradual process of me realizing that I wasn’t connecting with them in the way that I wanted to because I didn’t want to reveal any of my flaws. My conversations with them were more intellectual rather than heartfelt, and that bothered me. Over the course of the training, I was simply blown away by their willingness to talk about their struggles, and it inspired me to do the same.

Not surprisingly, studies reveal a link between some types of perfectionism and burnout. Perfectionistic strivings, the aspect of perfectionism that is associated with setting high personal performance standards and striving for excellence, is much less likely to drive burnout than perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic concerns involve being overly concerned about making a mistake, having a fear of negative social evaluation, and having a strong negative reaction to imperfection.

Perfectionistic patterns drain your mental and physical energy and can be associated with workaholism. Perfectionists also tend to think in a very rigid way, and this rigid style of thinking (and the strong emotions that follow), amplifies the body’s stress response. Ultimately, perfectionism can negatively impact how you work, your relationships, your home life, and your recreation (do your perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself?)

In order to evaluate how perfectionism is interfering with your work and life goals, it’s important to understand the different characteristics or traits of perfectionism. Which of these areas are issues for you?

Fear of failure. While nobody really likes to fail, perfectionists take fear of failure to a different level. Instead of finding what lessons could be lurking in the failure, a perfectionist sees failure as a statement of his or her worth or ability. To combat this fear, a perfectionist might overcompensate by reading something over and over again, obsessing about lists and organization, or being unable to make a decision.

All or nothing thinking: This is a common thinking trap and it involves your tendency to see a situation as either black or white; right or wrong. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight and you eat one cookie, you might think, “I’ve blown my diet completely!”

Defensiveness. Perfectionists often get very defensive when they are criticized because a critique threatens to expose their flaws, much in the same way failure does. Similarly, perfectionists take criticism as a statement of their worth or ability.

Fault finding with self and others. Perfectionists are often on the lookout for imperfections in themselves and others. Perfectionists tend to be largely overcritical of any misstatement, misspelling or flaw and see it as vitally important to correct people when they make a mistake.

Inflexibility – having a too rigid standard for you and others. There is a difference between setting high standards for yourself and being willing to learn from your mistakes and being inflexible. When I suggest to perfectionists that they may want to come up with their own version of “good enough,” most react as though I’ve just asked them to climb Mt. Everest tomorrow. Inflexible thinking often includes words like “must” “should” and “have to.”

Excessive need for control. Perfectionists often try to control the behavior or thoughts of the people in their lives as a way of preventing them from making mistakes or encountering harm. Close family members have been guilty of doing this to me, and it has negatively impacted our relationships over the years.

Can’t trust someone else to handle it. Has someone ever told you, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself?” Many high-achievers I work with hold onto this core belief, and as a result, find it very difficult to delegate and when they do, become micromanagers.

Perfectionistic behaviors can be sneaky because they are similar to the type of behaviors that most people use to maintain their standards; however, they vary in frequency and intensity. If you want to get a better understanding of your own perfectionistic tendencies and how they are impacting your life, contact me and I’ll send you a free worksheet to get you started. I’d also love to hear from you – how has perfectionism impacted your own life?


Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is a lawyer turned stress and resilience expert. Having burned out at the end of her law practice, she now works with organizations and individuals to build stress resilience. You can connect with Paula and to learn more about her work here:

Visit her website to learn more about her speaking and training programs

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