Perfectionism’s Dark Side: A Big Barrier to Success


“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis. Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’”

—Brené Brown, author of “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”

I remember it quite vividly. I raced to the listing of grades for the quarter—plastered plainly on our high school wall. Students gathered around the list, eagerly scanning for the results of the quarter’s hard work. Certainly the students’ minds were filled with questions like: Where did I place? Did I succeed or fail? How will this grade affect my standing? Will I get into college? More serious questions were likely swimming through minds as well. Am I an adequate human being? Will this please my parents? What does this grade say about who I AM?

On that day—end of the first quarter of my 10th-grade year—I received my first B+ ever, marring a record marked by straight A’s. And I immediately burst into tears. It was an emotional response that left me gasping for air. And the aftermath? Lots of self-flagellation that lasted for quite some time. It was a long time after that incident before I got another B.

On the face of it, the fact that I picked myself up and forged ahead with a fury that restored my straight-A record looks pretty good. Who could fault it? At first blush, my response appears to be a fine recovery after failure. I would agree. Except that I know the limitations buried under the surface of that response. I was miserable. I had a bad case of perfectionism that had run wild. Far from promoting my success, my perfectionism robbed me of satisfaction, enthusiasm and peace of mind. In addition, my perfectionist attitudes and actions prevented me from looking failure straight in the eye. I did not learn the lessons of mistakes and failures, but blasted past them—white-knuckled all the way—to circumvent the shame response that so often accompanies perfectionist views challenged by the inevitable imperfections called “life.”

Survival of a thing does not success make. That’s the moral to my story. My perfectionism might have ended up sorely crippling me forever. I suffered so deeply, however, that something had to be done. And it was. The details of my recovery from the perfectionist mindset and actions are not for this blog, but the costs of perfectionism at work is. If you are a perfectionist struggling to get through work, this blog is for you.

What are the costs of perfectionism? Here is a quick list. Check any items that apply to you.

  • Risk-taking: The true perfectionist avoids taking risks, including learning new things. Why? Well, new challenges means making mistakes, a thing the perfectionist doesn’t take well.
  • Rigidity: Perfectionists seek the familiar, tried and true, and love the certainty of right answers. Sound a bit rigid? Yes. And, innovation-inhibiting as well. If the secret to creativity is examining an issue from many perspectives and generating many possible solutions—and it is—then perfectionists lose at the innovation game.
  • People pleasing: The perfectionist’s mantra of “I achieve, therefore I am” drives them to impress others with their performance. Taken to the perfectionist’s extreme, this is exhausting, not only to the perfectionist but to co-workers as well.
  • Procrastination: It’s well known that perfectionism is highly correlated to fear of failure, leading to procrastination. Add a fear of disapproval and you’ve got a formula for paralysis.
  • Criticism: Perfectionists find it all too easy to criticize themselves—especially following mistakes or failures—and so, not surprisingly, will easily criticize others as well, even if the criticism is kept private.
  • Extremism: Prone to black-or-white thinking, the perfectionist can easily toggle back and forth between tackling what’s known and avoiding the unknown. Middle ground is foreign territory.
  • Loneliness: Perfectionism is called the “20-ton shield” by Brené Brown. It protects the wearer of it from hurt and rejection. Ironically, that same protection also prevents true, close, intimate connection with others. The lack of vulnerability—humanness—means diminished trust, a crippling factor at work.
  • Punishment: Instead of asking “What can I learn from this?” in response to mistakes or outright failures, the perfectionist squanders the opportunity, substituting heaping on loads of self-loathing in place of learning—just plain bad for progress and productivity.
  • Dissatisfaction: Perfection is—by its very nature—unattainable. It’s a goal that can never be accomplished. Perfectionists who hitch their happiness wagon to absolute impeccability in all things are setting themselves up for perpetual dissatisfaction. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back—and repeating the process over and over again—the perfectionist is relegated to the same. Pursuing a goal that cannot be accomplished results in constant effort, leading to no real endpoint, and no celebration either.

So, now you know some of the costs of perfectionism. In our next blog, you will learn what to do about it.

In what arenas and in what ways are you a perfectionist?

Who do you know with perfectionist tendencies? What price do they pay?

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