The Broken Promises of Perfectionism

When I ask people how they push themselves to achieve great things, I often get a response that sounds like someone trying to get the “correct” answer on a test; “I try to reward myself along the way” or “I visualize myself succeeding” or another piece of wisdom out of a motivational book. (I’m usually talking to smart people who know how to say the right thing.) But if I press a little and ask, no, really…what’ does that voice inside your head say to get you to work harder, accomplish more? That’s when I hear the truth: “I police my performance and find the tiniest errors, and fillet myself for each and every one. I expect more of myself than I expect of others. I know I can be perfect if I am really trying, so if I fall short I have no one to blame but myself.”

Perfectionists hold themselves to impossible standards, and beat themselves up for not meeting them. The argument I hear a lot is that these exceedingly high expectations are necessary for ambition, that nothing would get done without brutal self-judgment and self-criticism. But it’s not true. And I’m not telling you that based on some woo-woo belief about the power of positive affirmations. I’m telling you this based on research and science that shows that being hard on yourself does not help you achieve greatness.

A recent study found that professors who had the trait of perfectionism were actually less productive and less effective than their non-perfectionist peers. Perfectionist professors wrote fewer papers for publications, and what they did produce had a lesser impact in their fields. Their peers who exhibited conscientiousness were far more productive and effective. What’s the difference? Conscientious people strive for excellence, not perfection. They celebrate their accomplishments without dwelling on the little mistakes or failures or not-quite-perfects. In contrast, perfectionists attempt the impossible — perfection — and beat themselves up for not achieving it.

If that’s not convincing enough, how about this: perfectionism is bad for your health.  Studies have found correlations between perfectionism and high levels of stress and anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. Perfectionism has also been linked to migraines, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and earlier mortality.

The truth is that perfectionism causes stress, over-activates the sympathetic nervous system which decreases ability to think clearly, creates and reinforces cognitive patterns that prevent you from thinking creatively. Motivating yourself through positivity and self-compassion is more effective because your are able to think more clearly, access your creativity, and reduce unhealthy levels of stress. And as a bonus, you might also feel a little happy and peaceful.