Work allows us to go beyond ourselves. It is a sphere of life in which we have to excel and perform and where demands are always high. However, for some people it becomes just another opportunity to reach perfection. Perfectionists can give the impression they focus all their energy to continually improve themselves and that they are super achievers.
We live in a society where performance is highly valued. Therefore, it goes without saying that striving towards perfection often results in recognition and admiration, especially at work. However, perfection is a concept that combines all qualities and is therefore devoid of any flaws. Perfectionists tend to achieve the unachievable by setting unrealistic performance standards for themselves.
The characteristics of perfectionism are not to be confused with those of performance, which is devoid of any excess. In fact, perfectionism becomes unhealthy when it is excessive and omnipresent in all spheres of life, in whatever is being undertaken and when it has an adverse impact on life balance. Perfectionists put too much emphasis on their errors and will never tolerate making any. They are competitive and pay too much attention on results (not on effort) and peer assessment. What they do is often devoid of any pleasure and their quest for perfection is not a choice, but a necessity. In short, perfectionists define themselves by their successes and are seriously undermined by their personal failures.
However, these characteristics can lead perfectionists into dangerous territory. They find themselves in a perpetual state of failure, which puts them at risk psychologically. Perfectionists are indeed able to feel frustration and anger yet mostly feel undervalued. Since they define themselves through their successes, they feel responsible not meeting their objectives and judge themselves negatively.
Moreover, trying to overachieve and meeting very high standards makes way for constant ongoing stress and these elements are harmful to the mental health of any individual. “Perfectionism is a personality trait that makes people less able to cope with stress and very vulnerable.” [Translation] Perfectionists indeed get more stressed and are likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, adjustment difficulties and relationship problems.
Perfectionism can be described by a host of interacting factors. Certain traits or temperaments make some people more likely to become perfectionists. However, our personality traits are shaped by our interactions with the environment. Perfectionism is indeed endemic to Western culture. Our overall outlook on life and on the world we live in is above all determined by the relationship with our parents.
People looking for perfection very often relate relationships and typical interactions with their parents. Maybe they felt inadequate or feared to disappoint them by being imperfect, consciously or not, rightly or wrongly.
If you suffer in your quest for perfection, do not hesitate and contact your employee assistance program. A mental health professional will help you through the changes you wish to make and focus on your priorities, not only on your accomplishments and successes. An effective helping relationship can increase your adaptability and help you reconnect with pleasure.
Boivin, I. et Marchand, A. (1996). Le perfectionnisme et les troubles anxieux. Revue Québécoise de psychologie, 17 (1), 125-154.
Burns, D. (1992). Être bien dans sa peau, Saint-Lambert : Éditions Héritage.
Sherry, B.S., Hewitt, P.L., Flett, G. L., Lee-Baggley, D. Hall, P. A. (2007). Trait perfectionism and perfectionistic self-presentation in personality pathology, Personality and Individual Differences, 42 (3), 477-490.