The ‘dark side’ of perfectionism can cause stress and burnout

Worrying about meeting standards, and fear of failure are two aspects of the darker side of perfectionism, which can lead to burnout (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Marcus74id)

Fear of failure and worrying about meeting standards are two aspects of the darker side of perfectionism, which can lead to burnout (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Marcus74id)

Think of a perfectionist, and you’ll picture someone conscientious who goes the extra mile to produce top-notch work. Someone with extremely high standards who is motivated and energised to achieve them. That’s the ‘light’ or positive side of perfectionism, according to researchers, who say that these qualities and attributes can contribute to a strong sense of achievement.

But there is also a darker side to perfectionism, which is when people “constantly worry about making mistakes, letting others down, or not measuring up to their own impossibly high standards”, according to lead researcher Andrew Hill, associate professor of sport psychology at York St. John University in England, whose findings were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review. People who become consumed by perfectionism are more likely to achieve the opposite, by sabotaging their success in relationships, on the sports field, and especially in the workplace.

The results from this current study came from an analysis of 43 other studies over the last 20 years. The dark side of perfectionism – or ‘perfectionistic concerns’ can lead to people fearing they’re not being good enough, of berating themselves every time they make a mistake. Instead of feeling good about their achievements after all the work they’ve put in, sometimes a lack of support or acknowledgement in the workplace can turn perfectionism into cynicism, and the darker aspects can turn in on themselves – sometimes leading to mental health concerns, such as stress, anxiety and depression. Not to mention self-criticism and the voice of the inner bully/critic, mercilessly tormenting the perfectionist who feels that nothing will ever be good enough.

The antidote to dark perfectionism is compassion and forgiveness (not always easy for a perfectionist), and seeking out environments and people where mistakes are not only tolerated but encouraged as an opportunity to grow and learn. Admittedly, this isn’t always easy. Hill added: “People need to learn to challenge the irrational beliefs that underlie perfectionistic concerns by setting realistic goals, accepting failure as a learning opportunity, and forgiving themselves when they fail. Creating environments where creativity, effort and perseverance are valued also would help.”

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