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How Perfectionism influences stress and performance at work

Striving to do your best is a great thing, but what happens if your ambitions are detrimental to your success?  Perfectionism has been on the rise in recent decades. Together with the subject of procrastination, it is named as the most limiting and supporting general personal trait mentioned by my clients and within the teams I work with. Studies suggest that globalization, paired with social media exposure causes us to compare ourselves with others, and specifically young adults seem to hold rigid salary, education, and career standards.

The effects caused by the different kinds of perfectionism on individual mental health, team collaboration, and organizational health plus the significant increase throughout generations make this an important topic to discuss. In this post, I will be covering an all-encompassing rundown of Perfectionism, including an explanation of why perfectionism is important for the individual as well as collaboration within teams and organizational health. I will give some hints and tips on how to recognize perfectionism and 6 suggestions to stimulate healthy perfectionism at an individual, team, and organizational level.  

What is Perfectionism and how does it affect our mental health?

Perfect is the enemy of good is an aphorism which means insistence on perfection often prevents implementation of good improvements. Think back to the time you learned how to read; this didn’t go well instantly, right? Perfectionism often leads to putting things off or not implementing actions that will help you to reach your goals. But what is perfectionism?

We will look at this topic from a psychological perspective in this blog post. Perfectionism has many definitions, in psychology is it a broad personality trait characterized by a person’s concern with striving for flawlessness and perfection and is accompanied by critical self-evaluations and beliefs that others expect perfection. It is a multidimensional and multilayered personality disposition with adaptive and maladaptive aspects. Perfectionists are often known as critical, driven by fear, have unrealistic expectations, fear failure, and are defensive when they face any criticism.

APA – the American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as the tendency to demand of others or oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, over what is required by the situation. Healthy perfectionism or Adaptive Perfectionism drives people to perform their best, but unhealthy perfectionism or maladaptive perfectionism can lead to stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other issues that can affect their quality of life. If you recognize yourself as someone who sets the bar high, and perhaps also expects this of others, perfectionism might be one of your core personal strengths. But perhaps you also recognize the unhealthy aspects mentioned. A healthy perfectionist will always be a perfectionist and will always pursue the best – no matter how hard you try to be less perfectionistic. This kind of perfectionism is driven by high motivation, resourcefulness, and positive emotions.

Psychological research and literature describe perfectionism as many appearances and this kind of self-oriented perfectionism is one of them. Research describes 3 kinds of perfectionism and combines this with a 2-factor model view of perfectionism. Let’s dive into this a bit more.

The three kinds of perfectionism distinguished by psychologists are:

  • Socially prescribed perfectionism which involves high standards and social pressure to succeed. This type relates to and contributes to poor self-confidence and feelings of anxiety.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism. This kind of perfectionism involves having high expectations of other people. This type can contribute to conflict and relationship problems.
  • Self-oriented perfectionism: This is a more adaptive form of perfectionism characterized by high motivation, resourcefulness, and positive emotions.

Other psychologists present a two-factor model of perfectionism – differentiating perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns as two superordinate dimensions of multidimensional perfectionism. These two factors show different relations with motivation and performance. Research distinguishes the other-oriented perfectionism as a “dark” form of perfectionism separate from perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns.

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Perfectionism and generational differences

Healthy perfectionists’ sights can reduce stress, anxiety, and panic. In their research, psychologists Curren and Hill show that perfectionistic tendencies are on the rise among recent generations of young people. More recent generations of students reported significantly higher scores for each form of perfectionism than earlier generations. More specifically, between 1989 and 2016,  the self-oriented perfectionism score increased by 10%, while socially prescribed perfectionism increased by 33% and other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16%.

One probable cause suggested by the raw data collected is that social media use pressures young adults to perfect themselves in comparison with others, which makes them dissatisfied with their bodies and increases social isolation. Curran suggests that young people feel that perfectionism is necessary to feel safe, socially connected, and of worth.

Perfectionism on the team and organizational level

There is nothing wrong with making a mistake…. This is something I often hear within organizations and I wonder if this is truly the case. Perfectionism is becoming more pervasive within our company culture and decision-makers face a more significant number of perfectionists in hiring procedures – and may not be consciously aware if they are facing an achiever or perfectionism. Perfectionism stifles creativity, innovation, and spontaneity and we might want to distinguish perfectionism from Excellence.

Excellence involves enjoying what you do, feeling good about what you’ve learned, and developing confidence. You won’t stop someone who strives for excellence, while a perfectionist may face stress-related problems.

Societal norms and perfectionism

All mentioned above reveals that perfectionism has become a prevailing characteristic of modern society. In “The Perfectionist Trap”, Bill Heavey discusses the historical context of perfectionism and its effects on society and the individual. He argues societal and economic factors transformed perfectionism from a cautionary tail to a highly regarded quality. The consequences of this are poorer mental health and lower well-being. Research also shows that cultural norms play a role in social comparison processes and self-appraisal.

The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism

Well, after all of this, you might think perfectionism only has downsides. Important not to forget about the pros of perfectionism as well.

  • The Pros: Healthy perfectionism stimulates self-improvement and motivates you to give your best and achieve your goals.
  • The cons: it sets you up for failure and procrastination and causes negative self-evaluation.

A perfectionist who takes pleasure and joy in perfecting things thrives when the opportunity for optimizing and working towards perfectionism flies by. This perfectionist will always look for opportunities to optimize further and is afraid to make a mistake. What I highlight here is the maladaptive form of perfectionism


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Mental Health Effects Maladaptive Perfectionism

There is a long list of stress-related problems, self-limiting and socially inhibiting behaviours related to perfectionism. The longer a person strives for perfectionism, the more severe their condition may become.

Psychical complaints often consist of headaches, chest pains, exhaustion and impotence. The lengthy list of psychological and mental health issues consists of but is not limited to a steady intake of negative emotions, depression and anxiety, low self-worth and reduced well-being.

It shows in a reduction of playfulness, inward focus on personal performance perpetual self-evaluation and continual concerns over making mistakes. When experiencing maladaptive perfectionism people end up in the defeating behaviour of the Perfectionism – Procrastination loop.

The Perfectionism – Procrastination Loop

If your procrastination is related to a fear of attaining perfectionism, this loop sounds logical. The start of a new project might just be too terrifying since it won’t be good enough. Or you spend an excessive amount of time on the grand vision but put the actual task off until the last minute because the output might fall short of the grand vision. Or, if actions are driven by emotions, you might end up here as well – think about avoiding the task until it feels like ‘the right time’ (that never comes) or if you feel ‘I don’t have the right frame of mind right now’. In organisations, perfectionism might lead to underperformance, because people feel overwhelmed, and get caught up in this loop. Procrastination is an example of our flight response – initiated by our evolutionary system, where we seek to avoid the threat of failure and the negative feelings triggered by the task.

Thinking Patterns and Perfectionism

Unhealthy or maladaptive perfectionism is often associated with negative thinking. Perfectionists often are hypervigilant for signs that their performance is not up to scratch. Perfectionism can be a multi-head monster that might lead to falling into the trap of unhelpful thinking styles like all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophic thinking, or mind reading. Unhelpful thinking styles are often inaccurate but are accepted as reflecting reality. These unhelpful thinking styles serve to increase stress and overwhelm which can be demotivating.

The multi-headed monster can consist of the high-achiever who sets the bar high (always) – the person who can’t make mistakes -. Combines with the pleaser, who wants everyone to be happy,  the pusher, the one with the never-ending to-do lists and the control freak, who plans and wants everything to go that way. The common denominator in this case might be getting positive attention to feel good about it.

Other thinking styles reflect misguided attributions and rationalisations like attributing deadline-driven productivity to capability (I deliver the best results under pressure) or rationalising outcomes as an underestimate of true abilities – intending to preserve self-esteem (Pretty remarkable mark given the time I put into it).

Behaviour patterns of Perfectionism

The perfectionism–procrastination loop describes some behavioural patterns already but let me describe a few more:

  • Avoid making a decision – including the inability to choose an assignment topic because you feel the need to pick the perfect one. I tend to believe not choosing is a decision as well, you allow others to decide for you.
  • Give up too soon – this is common for perfectionists – trying means facing the possibility of meeting failure.
  • Delay starting a task – not committing means not having to deal with a less-than-perfect attempt.

In the longer term, maladaptive perfectionism might lead to avoidance behaviour like loneliness and isolation and is also associated with depression and anxiety disorders. This has to do with the relationship between behavioural patterns and the feelings or (dis)beliefs one has about themselves.

Feelings and Perfectionism

As mentioned in this blog, perfectionists tend to be highly self-critical and experience negative emotions when their expectations are not met (inevitably). The thinking style of unhealthy perfectionism relates to a ‘should/have to’ thinking and behaviour style and vice versa. So ‘should/have to’ behaviour often relates to the way you feel about yourself. You will only get the positive attention you are looking for if you live up to your ‘should/have to’.

The thinking style of perfectionists reinforces feelings of dissatisfaction, low self-worth, anxiety, overwhelm, guilt, depression, (self)-doubt and difficulty coping with the symptoms. The feelings might be so intense that procrastination seems to be the most comfortable option for the perfectionist.

Looking back at the multi-headed monster described in this blog, the high achiever who cannot make mistakes might think: “It has to be perfect’ and this might stimulate feelings of doubt, depression or fear – since it will never be perfect. The pleaser thinks: “Everyone should be positive and happy” – which will never be the case. This might stimulate low self-worth (I could not make everyone happy), and other feelings mentioned.

The most mentioned discomfort of Perfectionism seems to be fear. These fears originate in different drivers and relate to convictions people have about themselves. It is often about the way people perceive themselves.

Perfectionism and Anxiety

The relationship between anxiety and perfectionism is often established via worrying. Some perfectionist lives with constant feelings of anxiety or worry. Such symptoms can be disruptive and stressful. Worry is that feeling of uneasiness that occurs when your thoughts are focused on current difficulties in your life or potential problems that have not actually occurred. Fears come in many disguises as well. Some fear to fail, others fear to succeed. The perfectionist can turn the smallest fear into a worst-case scenario before it even happens.

It can be worrying about the upcoming evaluation at work, worrying about the safety of family members and so on. Common symptoms of anxiety include avoiding social situations, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, feeling tense, restlessness, headaches and fatigue, irritability and problems sleeping.  The constant worry can be exhausting and often increases your feelings of fear and anxiety. Worry and anxiety often make it difficult to unwind and relax, and in this way, it contributes to sleep disturbances, such as insomnia. As soon as your fears or worries disturb your normal performance in daily life, it is time to reach out to a professional.

How to befriend your Perfectionism and not let it affect your health or well-being

Now, let’s move to see how you can befriend your perfectionism and from there on not let it impact your health and well-being. We discovered in this blog perfectionism often stems from an inner criticaster. Depending on this origin there are multiple ways to decrease the size of your inner criticaster. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Befriending your perfectionism starts with knowing the roots and origin of your inner criticaster or with unravelling the root causes of the multi-headed monster nested inside your mind. I am saying nested inside your mind, since perfectionism often is inside the rational part of us, inside our minds and from there on influences our psychical condition. Somewhere in the process, we lose connection with our body and what our body tells us. Spending more time in nature, walking or finding other ways to connect with our body might help to reconnect and feel what your body tells you.

Perfectionism has many root causes. It sometimes stems from our upbringing, educational experiences or circumstances we ran into during our lives. Sometimes we live according to the beliefs we have about ourselves, something we told ourselves and started to believe in. Depending on the origin and root causes, there are many ways to befriend your perfectionism and not let it affect your (mental) health or well-being.

Here are some strategies that might help to practise on an individual level:

  1. Recognise the warning signs – once perfectionism starts impacting your day-to-day life and performance negatively, this might be the time to reach out for help.
  2. A psychologist can help to overcome negative thoughts. Together you can research recognise thought patterns, understand where they come from and help you challenge the thoughts.
  3. Practise mindfulness – mindfulness helps to become aware of thought patterns, feel what happens in your body and be OK with all of this. It helps you to be in the now, to be present. We often tend to be in the past or the future and the only time you can influence what is going on is now.
  4. Improve your self-esteem – Getting social support or practising self-care are good supports to improve your self-esteem.
  5. Optimization – This is different from perfectionism. See what you can do in 20% of the time you normally take to complete a task and deliver an optimal result.

Strategies on team and organisational level:

  1. Perfectionism most of the time relates to having or getting frameworks. Creating a framework or offering a perfectionist a framework might help to work towards making decisions, less worrying, and so on.
  2. Optimization – If perfectionism is one of the root causes that keep the team from delivering, optimization is also a strategy you can apply at the team or organisational level.

The process of overcoming perfectionism is taking baby steps. Breaking down the process and setting smaller manageable steps will help to make things not too overwhelming and see your progress. Allowing yourself the time to overcome this is a good first step towards better mental health and improving your well-being.

Wrap Up

When writing this blog I kept reminding myself of the question: “Is this good enough for the people reading it?” I for sure hope it is. What I tried to accomplish is handing some insight into healthy and unhealthy forms of perfectionism for you to recognize it.

I run into many individuals and teams falling short by falling into the perfectionist trap. It is like one of the participants of a course mentioned: “I hear myself often say in team meetings: “Let us also take a look at the good things we already accomplished”. May this article be a starting point to see the good things you already accomplished and feel the joy that comes along with this experience.

Ask for help when needed

For some, this article can be a warning sign. When you feel you cannot cope with this on your own, don’t hesitate to ask for help.  If you feel I could be the one to support you, please schedule a call below to discuss further. I look forward to meeting you and hearing your story.

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