As far back as I can remember, perfectionism has been my personal achievement standard. At school, I didn’t want to settle for grades less than A’s, in sports, it was important to not only win, but to also play so well that I would be chosen all-conference or most valuable on my team, and in life, I achieved because I craved my parent’s and teachers’ praise and didn’t want to let them down. What I understand now is that my perfectionism was a shield – a way to not have to expose my true self and vulnerabilities. In reality, the school and work pressure really got to me – but I didn’t want anyone to see that.
I carried this rigid standard with me and put tremendous pressure on myself in the process until two events changed all of that. The first was that I burned out in year seven of my law career. The decades of chronic stress caught up with me, and I ended up changing careers to do the work I do now. The second was my work with the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program. I taught resilience skills to soldiers as part of a training team hired by the University of Pennsylvania and the Army, and the soldiers helped me to drop my perfectionism shield. It wasn’t anything they said outwardly, but it was a gradual process of me realizing that I wasn’t connecting with them in the way that I wanted to because I didn’t want to reveal any of my flaws. Conversations were about facts, data and material, not about anything deep. Over the course of the training, I was simply blown away by the willingness of the soldiers to talk about their struggles, and it inspired me to do the same.
My favorite definition of perfectionism is from Brené Brown. She says that perfectionism fuels this primary thought: “If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.” My interest in perfectionism is more than just personal – it rears its ugly head in a lot of the work I do helping busy achievers build their resilience to stress. I’ve been blessed to interview almost two dozen professionals about their burnout experience, and perfectionism is an overwhelmingly common theme in their stories.
As a result, I was excited to read a new study that examined over 40 prior studies on the topic of perfectionism and burnout. Happily, the news isn’t all bad. The researchers noted that not all perfectionism is created equal – perfectionistic strivings are different from perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings involve setting really high personal performance standards, while perfectionistic concerns involve concerns (even strong fears) over making mistakes and being judged negatively by others for being imperfect. Interestingly, the researchers found that perfectionistic strivings had only a small or insignificant relationship with overall burnout and symptoms of burnout; however, perfectionistic concerns showed medium to large correlations with overall burnout and burnout symptoms.
What does that mean? Perfectionism doesn’t always set you up for burnout. The bigger issue is whether your perfectionism is being driven by a larger fear of being harshly judged for being imperfect.
A certain level of perfectionism is required at times on the job. A surgeon needs to make the right incision, a lawyer needs to file a case timely and make the proper arguments in court, and pilots don’t have much room for error when landing a plane. Having high standards and perfectionistic tendencies in limited and very focused instances such as the ones I mentioned may help you do your job effectively. Perfectionism becomes a problem when it drives workaholism, burnout, fear of failure, fear of making mistakes and not meeting other people’s expectations.
I will tell you from personal experience that the very best things in my life have come when I’ve had the courage to be vulnerable, expose my flaws, and be completely imperfect. To quote Superhero Life blogger Andrea Scher, “Good enough is really ‘effin good.”
For tips and strategies to bust perfection and build sustainable success at work and home, download my e-book, Addicted to Busy, here.
Have a burnout story to share? Please send me an email at paula@pauladavislaack so we can chat.
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Hill, A.P., & Curran, T. (2015). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1-20.