Perfectionism paralysis - when it breaks

It’s time to continue our adventure into the misjudged 'virtue' of perfectionism. To recap, we’ve explored what perfectionism is and the rigged game of self-imposed pressure to inform. We trekked through some possible hypotheses for how perfectionism – in particular, Sam’s perfectionism – begins and develops over time and we investigated some of the factors that possibly keep that perfectionism in motion.

Today’s episode: what happens when our excessively high personal standards and harsh self-criticism become too great? When the pressure we place on ourselves to achieve our rigid standards of perfection becomes too great? What happen when our shield breaks?

You may have guessed it. It’s burnout.

Perfectionism is really closely linked to burnout. A syndrome that health professionals associate with chronic stress, manifested as extreme fatigue, perceived reduced accomplishment, and eventual detachment.

Recent research has found that individuals who experience perfectionism also experience high rates of burnout.  And knowing what we know, this isn’t all that surprising.

Perfectionism comes with a grand amount of self-critcism, black-and-white thinking ("I'll be a success if I get the promotion, and a failure if I don't") and excessive fear of failure. These things all have the potential to be particularly damaging to a person’s mental health.

In an analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism conducted over the past 20 years, researchers found the trait of perfectionism was highly correlated with burnout in school, sports and work. Burnout was characterised by feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, low motivation and decreased personal efficacy.

The researchers examined two main dimensions of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings - setting high personal goals and proactively working towards those goals - were not linked with burnout. This aspect of perfectionism may ward off burnout by contributing to a sense of personal accomplishment. 

On the other hand, perfectionistic concerns - including the constant fear of failing, making mistakes, or letting oneself and others down, and the need for constant self-validation - were significantly correlated with burnout.

It's easy to see how this relationship works: The constant fear, self-flagellation and self-doubt that characterise perfectionistic concerns contribute to both acute and chronic stress - and, over time, high stress levels lead to burnout (not to mention other physical and mental health problems).

Furthermore, perfectionism was particularly likely to lead to burnout in the workplace. Why? The researchers suggested that it's likely that perfectionists enjoy less social support and clearly defined goals in the workplace than they do in school or sports. 

And when it comes to our case study into perfectionism – me – it appears I am a textbook case here. I’ve experienced burnout, more than once, and on each occasion at work or study. And on at least one occasion, that burnout has contributed or triggered an episode of mental illness.

And it’s pretty simple to see why.

All of those patterns we explored earlier drained my mental and physical energy, however the belief that if I didn’t achieve a ridiculously high standard, I would be a failure compelled me to keep going anyway. This rigid style of thinking brought such very strong emotions with it too (worthlessness, hopelessness, negativity) which would have amplified the body’s stress response. Ultimately, no amount of actual work would have helped me to achieve what it was I was setting out to achieve given the state my head and body was in.

Unfortunately perfectionism doesn’t just end with burnout. It’s not cured with a bit of time off and a rest. Next episode, we’ll start to unravel some of the challenging components to address perfectionism. The pursuit of im-perfectionism.

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