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Many of us consider perfectionism to be a positive characteristic. After all, who doesn’t wish they could be perfect? However, experts have found that perfectionism is not only NOT a positive trait to hold, but can be downright dangerous. In this article, we explore the dangerous downsides of perfectionism and why you should work towards unlearning your perfectionist tendencies.

1. Perfectionism and procrastination are strongly linked

Unfortunately for perfectionists, one of the downsides of perfectionism is procrastination. And once you understand why, it’s hardly surprising. For perfectionists, getting things exactly right is of the utmost importance. And that means having the exact right circumstances in place to even start a project. This means putting off starting tasks, or stalling along the way, while waiting for the right circumstances to present themselves.

A strong desire to avoid failure is at the heart of perfectionism, which can make it hard to begin anything for fear of not getting it right. Of course, everyone procrastinates a little sometimes. And often, it’s no big deal. But when perfectionists procrastinate, it can mean very important deadlines aren’t met. This can go on to affect study, career, and important milestones all throughout a perfectionist’s life. In the end, that sense of failure comes about anyway, due to not having achieved all they’ve set out to. For a perfectionist, the fear of failure often means never starting, and always feeling as though they’ve let themselves and others down. This leads us to our next point…

2. Perfectionism, anxiety, and depression are all bedfellows

Although ‘perfection’ is defined as being without flaws, perfectionism as a character trait actually means the need to be, or appear to be, perfect. Unfortunately, this need from seemingly high-achieving, driven, and focused people, can lead to impossibly high standards that are unlikely to ever be met. The flow-on effects of this are not only procrastination, but a low sense of self-worth and enhanced anxiety.

Perfectionists often have trouble realising their worth and giving themselves credit for their achievements. This means procrastinating on getting things done, as we’ve already mentioned. But another of the dangerous downsides of perfectionism is never feeling good enough, feeling as though they’ve let themselves and others down, and feeling like a constant failure. The trouble with perfectionism is that a perfectionist very rarely feels perfect, but has an incredibly strong desire to be so. Left unchecked, perfectionism can grow into very serious and persistent anxiety and can even lead to chronic depression.

3. Burnout is a common symptom of perfectionism

A perfectionist will often spend hours, days, or even weeks re-working something they’ve already done, in order for it to be ‘perfect’. From a school assignment, to a work presentation, to a home improvement job; a perfectionist is rarely satisfied with the result. Whilst this might not seem like such a big deal – and hey, getting things perfect is a good thing, right? – this dedication to getting things just right means a skewed view of time and reality, that ultimately leads to burnout.

With the sole focus being on getting things perfect, one of the downsides of perfectionism is not knowing when to take breaks when needed, which leads to a lack of self-care, lots of stress, poor health, poor sleep, and more. Speaking of which…

4. Perfectionism is bad for your sleep and overall health

The poor sleep and in turn, poor health experienced by perfectionists is something researchers have discovered in a number of studies. A 2010 study by the University of Coimbra (Portugal) found that perfectionists had more trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Meanwhile, another study done in 2006 revealed that perfectionists showed worse physical health than those without perfectionist tendencies, and took more sick days from work.

These reports are worrying for many reasons, and sick days off work are just one of them. Research shows that a lack of sleep alone can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

It is estimated that two in five of us display perfectionist tendencies. And thanks to social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, increasing numbers are concerned about being – or appearing to be – perfect. According to Gordon Flett, professor of health psychology at York University in Canada, who has studied the link between perfectionism and health for 20 years:

‘It’s natural to want to be a perfectionist in one area of your life, such as your job. But when it becomes an obsessive need for the perfect job, child, relationship, bank balance and body, it causes extreme stress and can affect not only relationships but your health.”

5. Perfectionists recover more slowly

Not only are perfectionists more likely to experience poor health, they’re also prone to a slower recovery from illness and injury, according to Professor Flett. Looking at 100 heart attack patients, Flett found that perfectionists recovered more sluggishly and were at a higher risk of future cardiac problems.

‘We identified three factors in the lives of perfectionists that slowed down their recovery: stress from the pressure they put on themselves; chronic negative emotions from never feeling joy in their achievements; and lack of social support,” says Flett.

These findings were backed up by a Dutch study published in 2010 by the journal Circulation. Involving more than 6,000 heart disease patients, the study found that perfectionists were three times more likely to experience further heart problems.

How to beat perfectionism

Not only can perfectionism lead to very real and dangerous health concerns, but it is also a thief of joy. Perfectionists tend to experience less overall happiness and fulfilment, and this, along with the serious health concerns involved, should be reason enough for you to seek to curb your perfectionism. Thankfully, it is possible to unlearn your perfectionist tendencies, no matter how deeply rooted they are. And it all starts with therapy.

A psychologist can help you to overcome the dangerous downsides of perfectionism and start experiencing joy, fulfilment, and happiness, by working with you to uncover the root of your perfectionism. By understanding where your need for perfection comes from, your therapist can help you to tackle the behaviours, psychological patterns, emotional states, and triggers involved with perfectionism.

It’s important to note that some aspects of perfectionism can be helpful, whilst others are unhelpful. In therapy, we can uncover which of those parts are useful to our lives and which don’t serve us; helping you to adopt a more balanced approach to life, and learning to feel satisfied in your achievements.

If you’re ready to curb your perfectionism and focus your energies on more helpful and healthy mindsets, it’s time to get in touch with us. We have helped hundreds of people to manage their perfectionism, join our successful and highly sought-after Perfectionism Program today!   

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen