Profits and Perils of Perfectionism

Perfectionists, by definition, strive for the best, trying to ace exams, be meticulous at their jobs, and raise perfect children. So one might assume this drive for the ideal translates over to their health as well, with perfectionists being models for physical and mental well-being.

But new research is revealing the trait can bring both benefits and perils.

Perfectionism tends to have two components:

Positive Side: 

  • setting high standards for themselves

  • causing one to stick to exercise programs to a tee, say, or follow a strict dietary regimen for treating illnesses.

Negative Side:

  • having doubts and concerns over mistakes and feeling pressure from others to be perfect.

  • mental pressure when mistakes are incurred along with the resistance to asking for help from others in fear of revealing one's true, imperfect self.

Studies show the personality trait of perfectionism is linked to poor physical health and an increased risk of death.

“Perfectionism is a virtue to be extolled definitely," said Prem Fry, a psychology professor at Trinity Western University in Canada. "But beyond a certain threshold, it backfires and becomes an impediment," she said.

It doesn’t take much imagination to explain what might drive a perfectionist to self-harm or self-deprecation. The all-or-nothing, impossibly high standards perfectionists set for themselves often mean that they’re not happy even when they’ve achieved success. And research has suggested that anxiety over making mistakes may ultimately be holding some perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place.

The intention of most perfectionists is to do things well. To excel. Recent research shows that those scoring high on perfectionism scales have higher standards, and under certain circumstances have better outcomes. That’s certainly what I strive for, as do a lot of others. So *perfectionism might not be something you have to give up. You just need to make it work for you, not against you.*

“Perfectionistic people typically believe that they can never be good enough, that mistakes are signs of personal flaws, and that the only route to acceptability as a person is to be perfect,” Thomas S. Greenspon said, a psychologist and author of a recent paper on an “Antidote to Perfectionism,” published in Psychology in the Schools. “Because the one thing these people are decidedly not-perfect at, research shows, is self-compassion.”

As Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence." Chasing perfection in the right way can lead to excellence. Allow yourself to become excellent. Excellence isn’t perfection, it is being excellent despite your imperfections. Give yourself compassion and grace. Enable yourself to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism.

Characteristics of healthy perfectionism:

  • Striving for high but achievable standards that result in feelings of satisfaction and increased self-esteem

  • Matching your time and energy to tasks that match your strengths and interests

  • Having a sense of what you value and what your priorities are and devoting the lion’s share of your time and attention to these areas

  • Reaping payoffs from your efforts that are greater than your costs

Characteristics of unhealthy perfectionism:

  • Repeatedly setting goals for yourself but never achieving them

  • Constantly competing to be the best at everything in order to avoid feeling like a failure

  • Giving in to the feeling that all mistakes are catastrophic

  • Getting stuck in believing that one particular strategy must pay off, instead of trying others

Don’t rob yourself of the life and successes you could experience because the fear and anxiety of failing get in the way. Let go and enjoy living an incredible life that is resilient amidst imperfections.

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