How Perfectionism Hurts Us - From Paralysis, to Burnout, and Worse

The terror of the blank page. The crippling anxiety of turning in work with mistakes. The humiliation of not getting that job promotion or not winning that game. 'I couldn’t stick with that other routine so why try again.' 'I took a workshop on coding/baking/painting and I couldn’t make my program work/bread rise/get faces right so I’m obviously not trying THAT again.'

What do these things have in common? It’s perfectionism, which can show up as excessive effort put in to things being a certain way, or as the complete opposite: NOT being able to achieve much or try things. While these outcomes seem very different, we’ll talk about how they are actually two sides of the same coin.

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My interest in perfectionism comes from my own experience.  There were years in my past where I would be absolutely paralyzed by the blank page.  I would maybe complete 3 paintings or illustrations in a year.  And when you are trying to establish yourself as an artist, that's a problem.

It was hard for me to finish a work, so if I were even going to bother to start one, it had better be good, right? So when I wasn't ABSOLUTELY SURE that what I was going to work on was going to be great, I simply wouldn't do it. It's the same idea of 'if it's not going to be Instagrammable, why bother?'

It took me many years to realize that perfectionism was something that made me my own worst enemy. I wasn't accomplishing much.  I sure wasn't growing.  And my career was stagnating.

When I finally realized what I was doing to myself and decided I needed to change, I very actively, and eventually successfully, worked at getting past it and stated to experience super fast growth in my work.

Later, I’ll talk about the ways that I pushed myself to do that… First, we're going to take a close look at what perfectionism is, the different types that exist, how it hurts us, and where it comes from.


What exactly it is?

Perfectionism is the over-application of high standards related to excellence. High standards in and of themselves are not perfectionism. The problem comes in at the point of over-application.

There are several different types, and as with most traits, (trait: a consistent characteristic made up of beliefs and behaviors), they occur on a spectrum. A person can have more than one of the types, and their experiences can range from very mild to very problematic.


3 Different Types

Self-Oriented - having unrealistically high standards directed towards one’s own performance and abilities. It’s entirely internalized. (You may be overly self-critical and struggle to let go of or finish work that doesn’t meet high standards.)

Other-Oriented - having unrealistically high standards of others’ performance and abilities. From the inside out. (Being excessively critical and bothered by others’ lack of flawlessness.)

Socially-Prescribed - the believe that one is being held to extremely high standards by society in general or other external people/factors like family, employers, social media, advertising, or by communities/peers. From the outside in. (These expectations can be real or perceived. People believe if they do not perform at a certain level of expectations, they will fail, face rejection, lose statues, or lose affection in relationships.)


2 Different Manifestations

Adaptive: This is the healthiER type. This type is constantly pushing to develop skills and achieve and are always raising their standards. They can work with a positive mindset of optimism and the desire to be better. (Excellence seeking.) Self-oriented is most likely to be able to fall in this category.

Maladaptive: More fixated on the failure end of the perfect-or-failure dynamic. They are rarely satisfied with what they do, and experience intense fear of failure. (Failure avoiding.)

Whether manifesting in academic performance, career or business goals, body image, social standing, or personal pursuits such as being an athlete or an artist, NEITHER adaptive or maladaptive is ultimately beneficial. More on that below.


The Harm of it

Beyond not actually being beneficial (we’re getting to that), it often has a smattering of genuinely harmful effects on us. While the maladaptive manifestation is most likely to experience these effects, both forms experience some of these struggles. Remember what I said before about it occurring on a spectrum. 

  • Procrastinating (avoiding starting things if you don’t know it will be exactly right, or getting caught up in minor details.)
  • Avoiding risk (anything that doesn’t have guaranteed successful outcome. Living in the comfort zone. This hurts growth and creativity, and typically ends up in the avoidance of seeking or accepting opportunities.)
  • Fear of rejection
  • Internalize criticism or feedback as personal attacks
  • Poor self-esteem (when we tie self-worth to achievements. This can lead to shame, self-criticism, and self-sabotage and imposter syndrome. Always finding ‘evidence’ that you’re not good enough.)
  • Giving up if you can’t be the best or ‘win’
  • Excessive checking
  • Reassurance and validation seeking
  • Overcompensating
  • Overly-critical of peers or colleagues, even being controlling (poor relationships)
  • Excessive organizing and list-making
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Not knowing when to stop
  • Ruminating (negative thought patterns that loop repeatedly in our minds)
  • Burnout
  • Eating disorders
  • Migraines

It can get serious. Particularly maladaptive presentations can also lead to high rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, self harm, and even suicide.


Where does Perfectionism come from?

We can pick up unhealthy habits from real or imagined expectations that are on us to achieve academically and get into good colleges, to families that demand we make certain decisions about our lives, careers, and families to be accepted, to simply absorbing the curated lives on social media as a standard to be measured against.

Despite being something that isn’t good for us, perfectionism is something that tends to be socially enforced. In modern day hustle culture, burning the candles and both ends is glorified and celebrated, such as an employee who works 12 hour days at their office job and gets bigger bonuses than their co-workers that also do good work but only put in 8 hours. Or the influencer who sacrifice their physical and mental health to present the perfect body and life on social media and is rewarded with huge followings and sponsorships.

We aren’t exactly getting pats on the shoulders from employers or algorithms for setting healthy boundaries.

And you know the dreaded job interview trope of answering the ‘what is your greatest weakness’ question proudly with ‘I’m a perfectionist’? It just demonstrates the double standard of how we think that this ‘flaw’ will be seen as an actual benefit because we see it as conveying that we’re detail oriented and conscientious. And wouldn’t any employer ultimately want that in their employees?

Now here’s the really important part. Would you believe me if I told you that perfectionism doesn’t actually enhance productivity? It’s been found that perfectionists might achieve things DESPITE their perfectionism, not because of it. Let’s say it again. Perfectionists achieve things DESPITE their perfectionism. Chew on it for a minute. Let it soak in.


So what are we REALLY getting out of it?

Besides the mistaken perception that we are able to use perfectionism toward achieving our best work, other ‘benefits’ we may get from being perfectionists are things like:

  • avoiding new responsibilities
  • holding on to a sense of control
  • or, and this is the really big one, protecting ourselves from failure. Hiding us from frightening things and hard feelings.

Consider what your ‘benefit’ is costing YOU. Is it affecting your mental health negatively? - Do you have high levels of anxiety, burnout, depression, or poor self image? If you’re able to strive and be successful, is it costing you healthy relationships, a healthy body, or a healthy life balance?

If your perfectionism is of the ‘protective,’ or paralyzing, sort, is it costing you opportunities, productivity, and personal growth where you experience long stretches of stagnated time where you aren’t reaching your goals?

Last year I spent some time teaching painting to 9-11 year old kids. The children could pick out their own reference images to paint from with my approval and they would each work on their own projects at their own pace. Now, this wasn't a graded class.  It was more like an open studio meant to get the kids started with working with the materials and thinking about some basics like values and color mixing. 

When it came to the kids picking out what to paint for new projects, I noticed a recurring pattern. Sometimes they would find an image from the reference folders that they liked.  They'd pull it out, take it to their easel, and then change their minds.  When I'd inquire about what happened to their first choice, I'd often hear, 'it would be too hard.' I'd counter with, 'well, why don't you just try it?' And then came that response that I hated to hear, 'but it won't be good.' 

I would always try to encourage them to just try it, because you only get 'good' at something by doing it. We learn through practice.  My arguments didn't often succeed. Or sometimes they'd agree to try it, and give up the minute they thought the painting wasn't going well.

They believed it wouldn't be good. And that became their truth. It was so hard to hear this kind of fear affecting these young people, but I absolutely recognized that same fear.  I had struggled with it myself.

So we can see how it can stop us from growing and keep us stuck. But what do we do about it?

What Now?

In my next blog post, I will get into how I managed to get over my own perfectionism in the art studio, and examine some different ways that we can tackle perfectionistic behaviors and beliefs in ourselves. The goal is to be more productive, and to feel good about it. Maybe even have some fun in our growth. If you'd like to know as soon as that post goes live, be sure to subscribe to my email newsletter.

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