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Perfectionism, as many of us know all too well, can be a double-edged sword.
While perfectionists are often highly motivated and intelligent achievers with a long list of accomplishments under their belt, they pay a price for their success. People with perfectionistic tendencies often struggle with extreme self-criticism, chronic stress and health problems like depression and anxiety, compulsive disorders and even heart disease.
New research suggesting that perfectionists suffer from high rates of burnout should therefore hardly come as a surprise.
“Being a perfectionist is very stressful, and stress contributes to burnout,” Andrew Hill, a psychologist at York St John University in England and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email.
What are the most stress-inducing aspects of perfectionism? Self-criticism, black-and-white thinking (“I’ll be a success if I get the promotion, and a failure if I don’t”) and excessive fear of failure tend to be particularly damaging, according to Hill.
Striving Your Way To Burnout
In their analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism conducted over the past 20 years, the researchers found the trait was highly correlated with burnout in school, sports and work. Burnout is characterized by feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, low motivation and decreased personal efficacy.
The researchers examined two main dimensions of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings — that is, setting high personal goals and proactively working towards those goals — were not linked with burnout. This aspect of perfectionism may ward off burnout by contributing to a sense of personal accomplishment.
On the other hand, perfectionistic concerns — including the constant fear of failing, making mistakes, or letting oneself and others down, and the need for constant self-validation — were significantly correlated with burnout.
“It is the harsh self-evaluative processes central to perfectionistic concerns that are understood to fuel the perfectionism-burnout relationship,” the study’s authors wrote.
It’s easy to see how this relationship works: The constant fear, self-flagellation and self-doubt that characterize perfectionistic concerns contribute to both acute and chronic stress — and, over time, high stress levels lead to burnout (not to mention other physical and mental health problems).
Perfectionism was particularly likely to lead to burnout in the workplace. Why? It’s likely that perfectionists enjoy less social support and clearly defined goals in the workplace than they do in school or sports.
Overcoming The Pitfalls Of Perfectionism
Many people possess some degree of perfectionism. But when perfectionistic concerns outweigh perfectionistic striving, you may be on the road to burnout.
One day, the researchers hope to devise interventions for reducing perfectionism-fueled burnout in the workplace. But for now, there are many things that perfectionists can do to help themselves, Hill said.
“[Perfectionists] can introduce flexible goals and the notion of degrees of success and failure,” he said. “They need to challenge the irrational idea that perfection is needed, and give themselves scope to do enough or do a job well without it needing to be perfect.”
Hill added that perfectionists can challenge the irrational beliefs underlying their perfectionist tendencies by reconceptualizing failure as a learning opportunity.
The findings were published online in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.