Perfectionism. It’s not just a drive for excellence; it’s an all-encompassing desire for unattainable perfection that we either chase or sabotage our chances of getting even close to that ever elusive sense of perfect. For many highly sensitive high achievers, this quest can become a relentless pursuit that leads straight down the path to burnout.
One of the biggest problems with perfectionism is that it’s celebrated in our culture that glorifies success and achievement. Good enough can be seen as “lazy” or like you’re giving up.
However, beneath this polished perfect exterior lies a complex web of challenges, self-loathing and consequences one of which happens to be burnout.
There’s an intricate relationship between perfectionism and burnout, so let’s explore its nuances, causes, and implications.

The Two Faces of Perfectionism: Overt and Covert

Perfectionism, contrary to popular belief, isn’t a one-size-fits-all trait. It manifests in two distinct forms: overt and covert.

Overt Perfectionism is the type that is more visible, characterized by high standards, a relentless drive for flawlessness, and a tendency to set unrealistic goals and sometimes achieve them. Individuals with overt perfectionism are often outwardly critical of themselves and others, striving for external validation and approval.

Then there’s Covert Perfectionism. On the surface, covert perfectionism may appear less intense, but its effects can be equally damaging. It involves internal pressure, self-doubt, and a fear of failure. Those with covert perfectionism may avoid taking risks or pursuing opportunities for fear of falling short of their own standards or external expectations.

While overt perfectionism is readily apparent, covert perfectionism can be insidious, quietly undermining one’s well-being from within or showing up in some more subtle ways.

Covert perfectionism is the kind of perfectionism that I do more work one-on-one with people and it’s one that I know all too well myself. It’s the kind of perfectionism that leads to habits like procrastiplanning where I’m stuck planning things out as far in advance as conceivable possible, thinking through every possible scenario and even some of the less likely or impossible ones, or sometimes even disorganization and messiness.

The Roots of Perfectionism

Understanding why someone becomes a perfectionist is crucial to unraveling its grip. Several factors contribute to the development of perfectionistic tendencies:

Upbringing and Environment: 

  1. High Expectations from Parents: Growing up in an environment where parents have exceedingly high expectations can foster perfectionistic tendencies. Constant pressure to excel academically, athletically, or socially can instill a belief that one must always strive for perfection to gain approval and validation.
  2. Praise for Achievement: Children who receive praise primarily for their achievements rather than their efforts or qualities may internalize the message that success is contingent upon perfection. This emphasis on outcomes over process can fuel a relentless drive for perfectionism.
  3. Comparison to Siblings or Peers: Comparisons to siblings or peers who excel in certain areas can create a competitive atmosphere where perfection is seen as the benchmark for success. Constantly measuring oneself against others’ achievements can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and the need to constantly prove oneself.
  4. Overemphasis on Performance: Environments that place excessive value on performance over personal growth and well-being can fuel perfectionism. Whether in academic, professional, or extracurricular settings, the relentless pursuit of excellence at the expense of self-care can reinforce perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors.
  5. Fear of Disappointing Others: Children who grow up feeling responsible for others’ happiness or success may develop perfectionistic tendencies as a means of avoiding disappointment or disapproval from parents, teachers, or peers. The fear of letting others down can drive them to strive for perfection in all aspects of their lives.
  6. Lack of Emotional Support: Environments where emotional support and validation are lacking may push individuals to seek validation through external achievements. Without a strong support system to provide reassurance and encouragement, perfectionism can become a coping mechanism for dealing with feelings of insecurity or inadequacy.

These are just a few examples of how upbringing and environmental factors can contribute to the development of perfectionism. It’s important to recognize that perfectionism is multifaceted and can stem from a combination of genetic predispositions, external influences, and personality traits.

Personality Traits: 

Several personality traits are associated with the development or amplification of perfectionism. While these traits can vary in intensity from person to person, they often contribute to the perfectionist mindset in different ways. Here are some key personality traits:

 

  1. Highly Sensitive and Empathetic: Highly sensitive and empathetic individuals tend to be organized, diligent, and detail-oriented. While these qualities can be beneficial in many aspects of life, they can also contribute to perfectionism when taken to extremes. Perfectionists with high levels of empathy may set excessively high standards for themselves and struggle to accept anything less than perfection. Feeling the disappointment of others so much more deeply, they also have a strong desire to people-please and gain acceptance, which can drive them to pursue perfection as a means of seeking validation and affirmation from external sources.
  2. Overthinking: Overthinking is characterized by tendencies towards anxiety, self-doubt, and emotional instability. Perfectionists that are excellent overthinkers may be particularly prone to negative self-evaluation and fear of failure. Their heightened sensitivity to criticism and tendency to ruminate on mistakes can exacerbate perfectionistic tendencies.
  3. Rigid Thinking: Perfectionists often exhibit rigid thinking  or all-or-nothing thinking patterns, characterized by seeing things in a binary black-and-white situation and struggle with the ability to tolerate ambiguity or uncertainty. This rigidity can manifest in strict adherence to self-imposed rules or standards, making it difficult for perfectionists to adapt to changing circumstances or accept imperfections.
  4. Being a High Achiever: A strong orientation towards achievement and success can fuel perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionists may equate their self-worth with their accomplishments and set unrealistically high goals for themselves. The pursuit of excellence becomes a driving force in their lives, often at the expense of their well-being.
  5. Fear of Failure: Perfectionists frequently harbor a deep-seated fear of failure and rejection. This fear can be a powerful motivator, driving them to strive for that vision of perfect as a means of avoiding criticism, disappointment, or disapproval from others.
  6. Low Self-Compassion: Perfectionism is often accompanied by a lack of self-compassion and self-acceptance. Perfectionists may be overly critical of themselves, holding themselves to impossibly high standards and berating themselves for even minor mistakes or shortcomings.

It’s important to note, though, that these personality traits exist on a spectrum, and not everyone who exhibits these traits will develop perfectionistic tendencies. At the same time, not every scenario will have the same degree of influence from these different personality traits. Recognizing and understanding these personality traits and how they play out in different scenarios in your life can be a crucial step in addressing and overcoming perfectionism. I tell my clients this phrase all the time – awareness is the first step. We have to know what we’re working with in order to reprogram the self-sabotage belief patterns.

Cultural Expectations: 

Finally, cultural norms and societal expectations can also influence the development of perfectionistic tendencies. In cultures that prioritize achievement and success, individuals may feel pressure to meet unattainable standards set by their society, family, or community.

The Perpetuation of Perfectionism

Once perfectionistic beliefs are established and reinforced over time, they can be challenging to overcome. Despite its detrimental effects, many individuals find themselves trapped the grip of perfectionism for various reasons:

Fear of Failure: Perfectionists often equate mistakes with personal failure, leading to a pervasive fear of falling short. This fear can drive them to push themselves relentlessly, unable to accept anything less than perfection.

External Validation: The pursuit of perfection is often fueled by a desire for external validation and approval. Perfectionists may derive their sense of self-worth from achievements and accolades, perpetuating a cycle of validation-seeking behavior.

Identity: For some, perfectionism becomes intertwined with their identity. It becomes not just a behavior but a core aspect of who they are, making it difficult to let go of those perfectionistic tendencies.

The Perils of Perfectionism: A Path to Burnout

While the quest for perfection may seem noble, its toll on mental health cannot be overstated. Perfectionism is a significant risk factor for burnout, a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion often accompanied by feelings of cynicism and reduced professional efficacy.

Perfectionists are prone to overextending themselves, constantly striving to meet unrealistic standards. This relentless pursuit of perfection can drain their energy and leave them feeling exhausted and depleted.

The fear of failure and judgment can lead perfectionists to withdraw from social interactions and support networks. They may isolate themselves out of fear of being seen as imperfect, further exacerbating feelings of loneliness and alienation.

Perfectionism takes a toll on mental health, contributing to anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues. The constant pressure to excel can erode self-esteem and rob individuals of their sense of joy and fulfillment.

Embracing Imperfection: A Call to Action

The journey to overcoming perfectionism begins with self-awareness and acceptance. Recognizing the signs of perfectionism and its impact on well-being is the first step toward change. It’s essential to challenge the belief that perfection equals worth and to cultivate self-compassion and resilience – which is the primary focus of the Creating Calm app.

As part of this journey, I invite you to take our free burnout risk assessment quiz. By gaining insight into your own risk factors for burnout, you can take proactive steps to prioritize self-care and well-being. Remember, perfection is an illusion, and true fulfillment lies in embracing our imperfections and finding beauty in our humanity.

I want to leave you with this: Although perfectionism may promise success, its pursuit often leads to burnout and dissatisfaction. By acknowledging the two faces of perfectionism, understanding its roots, and challenging its grip, we can reclaim our lives and redefine success on our own terms.