Perfectionism is an expression used with relative ease and frequency. Almost as if it indicates a desirable and even expected characteristic of those who are " committed ". We hear about perfectionism in various settings, but it is at work that it becomes most relevant.
The visible part: perfectionism manifests itself through high standards of performance at work (generally where it is most prevalent), or else in other areas of everyday life - an excessive concern with the body, health or image; an exaggerated attention to detail and rules; an exaggerated focus on results (for example in sports) or an overwhelming pressure to constantly make the most out of time (the well-known fear of missing out).
These people are seen by others as extremely competent, dedicated, or in other words, successful! However, underneath this performance, lies, often, a huge fear of failure and of not meeting all these expectations. A need to constantly have external praise and recognition. And when the goals are achieved, the satisfaction is short-lived, the need to reach the next goal quickly emerges. Generally, thoughts take on an all-or-nothing, inflexible nature - "either I succeed or I fail miserably"; "either I aim to achieve the best possible result, or I prefer not to try at all”.
Of course perfectionism can have a wide range of motivations. There are people with a more results-oriented temperament, with a great motivation to work and achieve high goals, without this meaning a fragile self-esteem, it's just an internal motivation that is normal to them. But this is not the truth in most cases. Perfectionism generally works as a "protection" from a more profound fear. We can be talking about the fear of losing financial stability, for example, which is usually found in people who have experienced difficulties in this area. Here the "slowing down" is understood as a threat of losing something or of becoming stagnant. There may be a sense of not succeeding in other contexts of life (generally in relationships) and therefore there is a need to strive and to "be very good" at work. But what is more common is when perfectionism functions as a way of compensating for a rooted feeling of not being enough or inferior.
And this feeling of inferiority is maintained, in most cases, by an important factor - internal speech. The self-criticism, the demeaning of oneself, the constant comparison to others. This internal dialogue is full of "I should have been capable of x", "I only screw up", "I'm always the same, what a disappointment", "what did the others think?", "I should have known that they are not as intelligent as y", "I don't even know why I'm trying". A probable explanation for such a negative speech could be a father, mother, relative or significant one who was demanding, critical or who overvalued the opinions of others, grades or achievements. It is learning from an early age that love (or simply the appreciation of others) is conditional - that we will be liked if we achieve the results that are expected.
And we all have some responsibility in this - as parents, as teachers, as co-workers, as leaders, as friends. "Don't give up!", "be strong, you can't think like this", "don't cry", "you have to make it, positive thinking!" - these are words said with the best of intentions, but they can unintentionally reinforce these ideas that are already so internalised.
Perfectionism in companies
If from a superficial perspective perfectionism seems to be a predictor of productivity, a broader outlook allows us to observe, in the long term, exactly the opposite: perfectionism is associated with fear of failure, procrastination, exhaustion and burnout.
The constant feeling of "I'm not being enough", along with rumination and stress over work (that makes it very difficult to "switch off" during non-working hours), is likely to result in mental and emotional distress. Perfection, being unattainable, means that the incessant search for excellence is not a sustainable pattern in the long run.
It is not uncommon that, after a few years, people who are extremely dedicated to their work, begin to reveal deep feelings of unappreciation (which is understandable, since they have given more than they have received), intense fatigue, lack of motivation for what used to stimulate them or even negative feelings towards the place where they work and the people they work with. The threshold for these feelings to arise becomes lower and lower - it is then a sign that the limit has been reached.
Although there is increasing talk about perfectionism and its relationship to burnout, it seems that both leaders and employees are afraid to let go of these high standards. Perhaps because they fear carelessness, demotivation, lack of productivity, failure. When in fact, the flexibilisation of perfectionism is an indicator of a more balanced life and higher levels of well-being and motivation that are widespread in all areas, including work.
What solutions do we have, then, for perfectionism?
It is worth mentioning that leaders and organisations can play a major role in reducing perfectionism. I leave here some aspects that should be taken into account for an organisational environment that aims to boost mental health (adjusted to the reality of each company):
- Consider the possibility, within what is viable for each business, of employees being able to choose their working hours. It helps to avoid presentism, since people will tend to choose the hours when they are most productive;
- Promote internal motivation in employees by enabling a favourable working environment for each individual, directing people to the jobs that are most natural to them and that they are most interested in, and facilitating relationships without intrigue or miscommunication. External pressure (control, unrealistic deadlines, constant questions) is associated with higher levels of demotivation and burnout.
- Promote trust among everyone. Avoid comments about members of the organisation, especially if they are absent. Give priority to direct and honest communication.
- Give constant feedback and speak directly to the employee when adjustments are necessary. Not only does this give the person the opportunity to readapt, but it reduces rumination and anxiety levels because the communication is clear, leaving little room for misinterpretation.
Although perfectionism, as a personality trait, may never completely disappear, it is possible to make it more flexible. And so I leave some important points for all of us, on a more Individual level:
- Keep striving to achieve important goals, but, intentionally, in a less-than-perfect way. This means learning to consider mistakes as inevitable, normal and expected and to interpret them as a sign of development and growth! We should remember that we are doing our best, with the resources we have and at the stage of life we are in.
- Try to develop internal motivation towards the tasks (e.g. devote ourselves, when possible, to the tasks that stimulate us the most; analyse the "gains" that these tasks can provide us with - new learnings, development of skills,...). "Where can I root my motivation other than external approval? What really matters to me in the long term?"
- Enjoying the process - sometimes choosing to do for the simple pleasure of doing, letting go of the focus on the outcome. Promote a balance between outcome seeking and enjoyment.
- Try to reflect on whether there are life contexts that may be being neglected (health, family, friends, leisure). "What is really important in my life? Are the actions I implement in my daily life congruent with what I value most?"
- Create free time without blaming ourselves. Seek to "waste time" on tasks that are not productive or countable. Getting out of "doing" mode to get into the mode of just "being".
- Let go of the comparisons and the fear of missing out as a criteria to judge if life is in fact being "well lived". We tend, in more difficult moments, to compare our bad days to the good days of others. We create a totally biased mean of comparison. This experience - of feeling that we are not living life as it should be lived, and that the other is living a better life - is shared by us all;
- Not to criticise ourselves (or at least as little as possible). We should analyse the mistakes and see if they can be improved, however, criticism is of no use;
- Remembering the obvious: people will criticise. It does not have to be interpreted as our fault or the fault of others. It only reminds us of the diversity of ideas and values. It is important not to reinforce this external criticism with self-criticism. Be selective: try to remember whose opinions really matter to you.
- Time management and planning strategies can help to manage procrastination, but what really becomes transformative is to gradually face the fear of failure. Procrastination is not related to laziness or not wanting to work. It is about avoiding difficult emotions and feelings of inadequacy that arise when we are doing certain tasks.
- Listening to our body and emotions. It is the best way to realise if we are neglecting our limits and if we need to slow down.
And finally, the best "weapon" to defend ourselves against perfectionism: self-compassion. Being compassionate towards your own mistakes requires training as it doesn't come completely naturally to you. To help, try to think what you would do if the person you care about most had made a similar mistake to yours - what would you say to them? This requires that instead of wallowing in frustration and self-criticism, we treat each other with consideration and understanding "Everyone makes mistakes, tomorrow is a new day and I will try again. My mistakes don't define me.”
“Perfectionism is not teaching them how to strive for excellence or be their best selves. Perfectionism is teaching them to value what other people think over what they think or how they feel. It’s teaching them to perform, please and prove”.