How to overcome the negative health effects of perfectionism

How to overcome the negative health effects of perfectionism

If you’ve ever admitted to being a perfectionist when asked about your greatest weakness in a job interview, you probably didn’t intend it to sound like a weakness at all. Our culture tends to view perfectionism as a positive trait. After all, who wouldn’t want to work with or manage someone who strives for perfection?

You may think that all perfectionists are highly motivated super-achievers who never sleep and live at the office, but perfectionism can be far more subtle. Over time, the effects of even minor perfectionism can take a toll, so it’s important to be aware of what to watch for and how to cope with perfectionist behaviors.

Examples of common perfectionist behaviors include

  • Checking or agonizing over small details – For example, it may take an excessive amount of time to send an email due to checking and rechecking for errors.
  • Redoing work – Perfectionists may rewrite emails, summaries, or entire projects to try to make them better.
  • Criticizing coworkers – A perfectionist may use this as a defense mechanism if they have trouble accepting their own flaws.
  • Taking pleasure in a coworker’s failure – Seeing someone else fail may make perfectionists feel better about their own flaws or mistakes.

As it turns out, perfectionist tendencies can not only make one less productive and focused, they can put one’s mental and physical health at risk.

Mental health effects of perfectionism

Perfectionists tend toward all or nothing thinking. For example, they may view mistakes as catastrophic, spend days ruminating over what went wrong, or berate themselves for not catching a mistake in the first place.

Trying to do everything perfectly at all times requires a tremendous amount of energy.  Not only is the perfectionist devoted to the tasks at hand, but they are constantly worrying about making mistakes. This amount of pressure can lead to serious mental health problems including burnout, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

Physical health effects of perfectionism

Chronic stress, a common result of perfectionism, can lead to physical health problems as well. A perfectionist may come down with colds or other illnesses more frequently than their coworkers. They may experience gastrointestinal symptoms, feel generally fatigued, or even develop heart problems.

Tips for coping with perfectionism

If you do find that your health has suffered as a result of perfectionism, things are far from hopeless. The following are strategies you can use to start changing your mindset today.

  1. Set specific, realistic goals

    Breaking a project down into smaller tasks will make is seem less overwhelming and help you focus on one step at a time.

  2. Practice mindfulness

    Mindfulness is actually the opposite of perfectionism. It involves acknowledging and accepting that life is unpredictable and imperfect. You can work on this by doing regular mindfulness exercises, meditating, and becoming more aware of your thoughts and their effect on your mental state.

    You may spend your workday frantically chasing details and trying to anticipate potential problems, but taking a few minutes to incorporate mindfulness exercises into your work routine can produce benefits from increased relaxation and reduced stress to decreased negative thinking.

    Try setting a timer to go off one or more times during your workday and take a minute or so to focus on your breath, call to mind a few things you are grateful for, or pop in some earbuds, close your eyes, and listen to music.

    Practicing mindfulness requires some extra time and effort, but the results will be well worth it.

  3. Stop procrastinating

    Perfectionists tend to put tasks off out of fear of failure, which often leads to increased anxiety due to more time spent worrying about the task instead of working on it. Dive in sooner and you’ll waste less energy worrying about how to best complete a project or how perfect the results will be. Follow these 10 powerful strategies for managing procrastination.

  4. Set a timer

    Give yourself a specific amount of time to finish a report or compose an email. Once the timer goes off, try to let it go. Over time, you’ll learn that you can be more productive and less stressed even if you occasionally make a mistake.

  5. Work with others

    Perfectionists tend toward compulsiveness, and oftentimes their attention is turned inward, particularly to worrying over making mistakes and negative self-talk.

    Working on a group project forces our attention outward to those around us. Perfectionists may feel a sense of relief when working in a group setting. Success as well as failure is shared, taking the focus off of any individual shortcomings.

    Working within a group also presents perfectionists with alternative ways of accomplishing a goal, driving home the idea that even their “perfect” way of getting something done is not the only successful way.

    Similarly, volunteering for a cause or organization that you believe in draws your focus outside of yourself and toward the greater good. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to be perfect to help others.

  6. Educate yourself

    Learn about additional strategies to reduce perfectionism and continue working on decreasing perfectionist behaviors.

  7. Ask for help

    Many people don’t like to admit they need help, but this can be particularly difficult for perfectionists. They may view asking for help as a weakness and feel that they should be able to handle everything on their own. If this sounds like you, consider the toll perfectionism can take on your health before you rule out seeking professional help.

    Perfectionism can be successfully treated by a professional therapist, in particular with the use of cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy focuses on challenging patterns of thinking in order to change unwanted behaviors.

The suggestions in this article are not intended as medical advice.