The Costs of Perfectionism

Single Word: PerfectionPerfectionism may sound like a good thing. What could be better than aiming high, going for the gold? But, perfect is an unattainable goal. If you are a perfectionist, no matter what you do, you won’t be able to get there. Unfortunately many perfectionists are unaware that their aspirations are out of sight, always beyond their grasp. What do they do when time after time they fail to measure up to their unrealistic standards? They try harder. Over time all that effort can lead to some grave consequences.

There are many possible costs to living a life on a quest for perfect. I’m going to focus on five primary costs.

  1. Self-esteem challenges–due to never measuring up and harsh judgment of themselves and their efforts.
  2. Physical challenges–due to living in a state of chronic stress and having poor or non-existent self-care.
  3. Lowered productivity and performance–due to unrecognized exhaustion, too many obligations, poor time planning, and procrastination.
  4. No time for themselves to enjoy life –because all their time is spent trying to measure up to an unattainable standard.
  5. Relationship difficulties — due to a tendency to not only judge themselves harshly, but also judge others. 

Self-esteem challenges — Perfectionists tend to have a harsh inner critic. For example, as a perfectionist, when you make a mistake you beat yourself up for your error. When you don’t get something done, you beat yourself up, or at least feel bad about yourself for your incompletion. Because you can’t reach the bar, you’re never good enough.

Perfectionists can never do enough to really be OK. They are always seeking a higher level and never make it. The end result is they can’t be solid and grounded in the knowledge of their own competence, value and worth.

I’ll never forget when a therapist once said to me, “Debbie, you are one of the most competent people I know.” I was shocked. I had no clue I was so competent because I was focused on what was incomplete, what I hadn’t done right, and what needed to be done.

Physical challenges — Chronic stress and constant working can lead to exhaustion. Once one hurdle is leaped, another high one or several high ones are waiting. There is very little down time.

Over commitment and the stress that comes with it can lead to heart issues, musculoskeletal pain, particularly in the neck and back, digestive problems, and difficulty sleeping to name a few. At its worst cancer and heart attacks are possible, probably caused by chronic stress. 

Lowered productivity and performance —Perfectionists spend more time than they need to on tasks to make sure they are done just right, so consequently they get less done. Sometimes they fail to complete tasks because they are not yet perfect.

The quality of a perfectionist’s performance can be affected by unrecognized exhaustion or juggling too many obligations. I learned this recently when I deliberately took time off to play and rest every day. I discovered that the ease of writing and the quality of my writing when I got rest, even for short amounts of time, was far superior to what I’d been accomplishing when I was limping along unaware.

With such high standards and challenges believing in their ability, it’s not unusual for perfectionists to sometimes shut down completely, have difficulty engaging in tasks they need to do, have committed to doing, or want to do. I call this performance paralysis.

Not getting things done because they don’t have time to do them perfectly or because they are experiencing performance paralysis can also result in clutter. Clutter has a profound negative effect on both productivity and performance.

No time to enjoy their lives — Going for perfect costs time, time that could be spent doing other important things, like resting, enjoying social interactions and family life.

Relationship difficulties — If as a perfectionist you’re shooting for perfect, you’re more likely to carry that expectation beyond yourself and expect it from others or judge others for being less than perfect. That often results in criticism and/or a failure to acknowledge the contributions and value of others. Criticism NEVER helps. It corrodes relationships both with self and with others.

If you struggle with perfectionism, is the payoff for your efforts worth the costs long-term? Probably not. But, it’s a habit anchored in place by some compelling beliefs and strong emotions. My next blog post will offer suggestions for moving beyond perfectionism to a more humane way of living. Stay tuned!