The Dark Side of Perfectionism

Sometimes, it's okay to fail. 

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We often think being a perfectionist is a good thing. But always striving to be perfect—particularly in the workplace—can actually lead to stress, burnout, and potential health problems, a new research review shows.

The meta-analysis, which looked at the relationship between perfectionism and burnout, is the first study to aggregate the full effects of perfectionism. The researchers analyzed findings from 43 studies conducted over the past 20 years, concluding that perfectionism seems to be most detrimental when people are concerned with letting others down, or aren't reaching their own impossibly high standards. The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review.

"Perfectionistic concerns capture fears and doubts about personal performance, which creates stress that can lead to burnout when people become cynical and stop caring," lead researcher Andrew Hill said in a statement. "It also can interfere with relationships and make it difficult to cope with setbacks because every mistake is viewed as a disaster."

The stress created by these worries can disrupt success in academic and sports environments, although the negative effects were strongest in the workplace (potentially because performances at work often go unrewarded). The stress often manifests itself in burnout, and it can contribute to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and chronic pain or fatigue, previous studies have shown.

But not all aspects of perfectionism are bad. Setting personal high standards and working proactively towards them could help to maintain a sense of accomplishment, the study found. Creating realistic goals, forgiving yourself when you fail, and viewing failure as a learning opportunity are all ways to leverage perfectionism as a positive force, according to Hill.

"Creating environments where creativity, effort and perseverance are valued also would help," he said.