Perfectionism would seem to be an ideal quality in an employee: Bosses should love you, clients and customers should ask for you and only you, and co-workers ought to be standing in line waiting to have you join their project.
Plus, students learn from a young age that an A+ is better than an A, and that constant striving ought to make them the star pupil and envy of their fellow students.
But as it turns out, the psychological underpinnings of perfectionism are quite complex. One factor that drives perfectionism is internal insecurity–and a desire to outdo those around you. Is your desire to be perfect a function of wanting to outdo those around you? If so you may fall into this group.
Related to this brand of personal insecurity is the need for constant validation from teachers, bosses and even parents. Perfectionists’ hunger for validation is a double-edged sword. Once praised, some people develop the need to maintain this level of overachievement in everything they do. Whether it’s an evening meal or a DIY project produced via Pinterest, these kinds of perfectionists can even begin to be immobilized by their desire to be perfect. Living up to someone else’s standards is exhausting, especially if you’re not sure what those standards are.
University of Kent psychologist Joachim Stoeber, who has written extensively on the topic of perfectionism, has examined the relationship between perfectionism and work performance. In a recent chapter of his recently published book Perfectionism, Health, and Well-being, Stoeber and his co-author Lavinia Darham dispense immediately with the notion that perfectionism is an entirely desirable trait. Perfectionists waste time and energy as they attempt to maintain ideal standards of performance, ruminate about work even when they’re off duty, and struggle with uncertainty without lots of feedback about how they’re doing. Not surprisingly, such people are much more likely to experience mental health repercussions.
Fortunately, personality psychology may be able to save some of us from ourselves. According to Stoeber and Darham, people vary in how much they are internally driven to achieve perfection (perfectionistic strivings) and how much they want to be perfect to please others (perfectionistic concerns). These two facets can be statistically separated from each other by examining their relationship to work performance and health.
Let’s look first at work motivation, also called “engagement.” People whose perfectionistic motivations are “autonomous” care more about satisfying their own needs than what their bosses or clients expect from them. People whose motivations are centered more around pleasing others feel they have less choice in determining how or what to do at work. These people have what is called “controlled” motivations.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that people in the latter group also more likely be the ones to suffer burnout. They don’t put in the effort because they enjoy what they’re doing or even because they feel that it’s important. So the more they work, the greater the toll on their emotional—and potentially physical—well-being.
There is no single, perfect way to handle the stress caused by perfectionism. Sometimes you can reduce stress by attacking a problem at work until it’s resolved; other times you’re better off taking a break. What makes a coping strategy effective or not, in short, is whether it works.
According the research reviewed by Stoeber and Damian, people whose perfectionism is more internally driven tend to use more adaptive coping methods and therefore are less likely to become burned out. And those who seek perfection to avoid criticism from others are less adaptive at coping with stress, making them even more likely to burn out.
Ultimately, if you or someone you’re close to possess the classic signs of perfectionism, it’s probably time to interrogate your motivations. Perhaps writing a report or putting together a presentation that’s just “good enough” isn’t as bad as you think–and it may be much better for your mental health.