Unpacking Perfectionism: Understanding Its Causes and Effects

CoachHub · 25 July 2023 · 12 min read

Perfectionism is a phenomenon that affects more people than you may realise. The concept of being a perfectionist is mentally and emotionally draining for those affected. Perfectionists are constantly trying to “get it right” and always be flawless at whatever they participate in.

Being a perfectionist goes beyond just being an overachiever. It involves setting unrealistic expectations for yourself that you want to meet at all times. When these expectations and standards are not met, the perfectionist develops a low sense of self worth, as they feel like their value is tied to their achievements and their ability to do everything perfectly.

In many young people, the rate of perfectionism has increased in the past decade. More people are holding themselves to higher standards that significantly impact the way they see themselves. It has become a source of concern because it is taking a toll on people’s mental health.

Perfectionism has spilled over to the workplace as well. While it is important to be focused and driven at work, it is important to create a distinction between achievable goals and unrealistic expectations.

This distinction is necessary because the inability of an individual to tell when they are being overly critical of themselves and their ability could lead to low self esteem which inadvertently affects the quality of work. Perfectionism ends up being counterproductive in the long run.

There are many causes of perfectionism in workers and adults. Sometimes, the causes stem from childhood or they can be planted through societal influences. Either way, it is necessary to understand the sources of perfectionism so people can figure out healthy ways of coping with disappointments and setbacks in the workplace.

Three types of perfectionism

A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences between 1989 and 2016 by Thomas Curan and Andrew P. Hill between 1989 and 2016 uncovered three types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented perfectionists are internally motivated – they set impossibly high standards for themselves that they constantly strive to achieve.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionists are externally motivated – they perceive that they must fulfil impossible ideals for others to accept them.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists have unrealistic expectations for others to perform at impossibly high standards.

Perfectionism and the Pareto Principle

Let’s look at Pareto’s Principle, or the 80/20 Rule, which states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. While the ratio may vary – it could be 70/30 or 90/10 – the meaning is the same. A high percentage of our efforts are producing a very small percentage of our results. In the workplace, this concept translates to 20% of our workforce producing 80% of the work. As it applies to individuals, it means that within the first 20% of the work we put toward a task, we’ve completed 80% of the task. The remaining 80% of our efforts are spent perfecting our work. This doesn’t mean that we can reduce the time we put to a task by 80%, but it may mean that we’re overthinking or over-working a large percentage of the task. We’re wasting time on the minutia.

perfectionism

Perfectionism and the law of diminishing returns

Along the same lines, the law of diminishing returns states that the profits you gain from producing something get proportionally smaller the more time you spend on it. Once you have reached peak performance all the effort – every minute, every additional employee and every dollar – you put toward increasing efficiencies, improving production or perfecting your product reduces your returns. Eventually, you over-improve to the point of negative returns.

Research reveals that professors who exhibit high levels of perfectionism seldom outperform their non-perfectionist colleagues.

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban explained why good enough is better than perfect when he said “Perfection is the enemy of profitability. Perfection is the enemy of success. You don’t need to be perfect because nobody is.”

law of diminishing returns

(Image: Personal Excellence)

Deliberate imperfection and the Pratfall’s Effect

Elliot Aaronson theorised that highly competent individuals are found to be more likeable when they blunder. He proved this theory – called Pratfall’s Effect – in an experiment in which college-age individuals evaluated the likeability of superior and average game show contestants before and after a slip up. The conjecture is that a superior is perceived as distant. A misstep humanises them and increases their attractiveness.

We see the Pratfall’s Effect in many cultures that embrace intentional imperfection. Craftsmen and artists do it. Navajo rug weavers include imperfections, called spirit lines, in their line work. Japanese artisans also include intentional imperfections, called wabi sabi, in their artwork. These appear as asymmetry, chips, nicks, simple or humble craftsmanship.

The idea behind deliberate imperfection isn’t about embracing the mediocre or celebrating sloppiness. Instead, it celebrates the natural world and our flawed humanity.

Intentional or not, businesses have been embracing imperfection on social media – or letting it slide – for years. It humanises a brand, and – in an epitome of Pratfall’s Effect – increases engagement. Rather than focus on perfecting any one product or message, we get close and then move on to the next, better thing.

The cult of imperfection

In 1937, Sir Robert Watson-Watt invented an early-warning radar system that detected German aircraft and relayed the critical tactical to the RAF. The system was far from perfect, but it helped to turn the tide of the war. Watson-Watt was able to invent and implement the radar in such a timely manner because of a principle he called “the cult of imperfection.” According to him, one must choose the third best solution because the second best comes too late, and the first best doesn’t exist.

Today, we can see businesses implementing the cult of imperfection. Software companies do it when they release a game or program, knowing they’ll have to update their product as bugs are discovered. While consumers may see this as less than ideal, if we were to hold out for perfection, the software may never be released. If this were to happen, the technological evolution would never have occurred.

Embracing imperfection and moving on allows innovation to move forward. It’s what we should expect from ourselves and our peers as well.

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Causes of perfectionism

Perfectionism has many root causes. Sometimes, it can occur as a result of the combination of different factors.

A. Psychological factors

A person’s psychology has a big part to play in how much of a perfectionist they are. Psychological traits inherited from parents or internalised childhood experiences such as strict parents, caregivers or teachers can plant seeds of perfectionism in an individual. These seeds mature and grow as the child becomes an adult. Neurological factors also contribute to perfectionism in a person. Sometimes, the individual is unaware of these traits and may go through life expecting themselves to overcome unrealistic standards. The categories of psychological factors that could contribute to perfectionism are:

  1. Genetics
  2. Childhood experiences
  3. Neurological factors

B. Personality traits

Individuals may possess personality traits of their own that make it difficult for them to go easy on themselves. People with obsessive tendencies may have a hard time with perfectionism as they will be inclined to carry out their tasks with high standards. Some others may have a compulsive need to control everything that happens in their lives. This makes them less tolerant of mistakes. Some of the main personality traits that cause perfection in people are:

  1. High standards
  2. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
  3. Need for control

C. Self-esteem

Self-esteem plays a big role in how much of a perfectionist an individual is. Some people find it difficult to accept that occasional failure is unavoidable in life and they internalise every instance of failure they come across. This causes them to have low self-esteem and a need to appear perfect at all times. The factors that contribute to self-esteem issues in perfectionists include:

  1. Fear of failure
  2. Need for validation

D. Environmental factors

As we grow, our environment affects our personalities more than we realise. As time passes, people tend to internalise external influences which change the way they interact with their values and morals. The influences can either be cultural or social.

pencills sharpened and aligned to perfection

Effects of perfectionism

Perfectionism tends to crawl into every aspect of an individual’s life if left unchecked. Before you know it, it takes a toll on health and progress, causing undue setbacks.

A. Mental health

The problem with perfectionism is that it leads to higher levels of stress in individuals. Stress is a major factor behind many mental health problems. Even when there are no visible mental health problems, the low self-esteem that comes with perfectionism leads the individual to put a lot of pressure on themselves. You also become more susceptible to imposter syndrome. At the end of the day, it becomes more difficult to gain happiness from simple things.

There is also the likelihood of developing unhealthy habits or coping mechanisms that take a toll on a person’s ability to handle stress. Mental health problems that could arise as a result of perfectionism include;

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Eating disorders

B. Work-life balance

A perfectionist may have a very poor work-life balance due to their inability to prioritise. They may begin to relegate important aspects of their lives to the background due to their desire to surpass their unrealistic standards. Ironically, this leads to procrastination and decreased levels of productivity. This makes the person feel even more low, contributing to a lack of work-life balance. Some of the problems that could arise from this are;

  1. Burnout
  2. Relationship problems
  3. Lack of creativity

C. Physical health

Perfectionists may neglect their hygiene or their general health. Some people who develop eating disorders start to feel the effects physically. Small mistakes make them spiral or cause a feeling of stagnancy. Plus, the lack of a healthy work-life balance causes them to “forget” to take their health into consideration, leaving them susceptible to a range of physical health problems like;

  1. Insomnia
  2. Headaches
  3. Chronic stress

At the end of the day, perfectionism may cause more harm than good in an individual’s life.

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How to recognise when perfection is holding you back

Hard work and high standards might set you apart from others, but they also drive others away. They get in the way of all that you can achieve and hold you back from real success. Learn to recognise when your goals are unachievable and you’re getting caught up in the little things.

Here are some signs that you might be a perfectionist:

  • You set unrealistic standards and unattainable goals
  • You get caught up in procrastination
  • You’re controlling
  • You micromanage
  • You’re critical
  • You’re motivated by fear of failure, or you motivate with fear
  • You have difficulty delegating
  • You react defensively to feedback or constructive criticism
  • You neglect to celebrate successes
  • You feel inadequate
  • You have a low sense of self-worth
  • You believe likeability is determined by achievement
  • You dwell on flaws and past mistakes
  • You avoid tasks or activities that might lead to failure
  • You’re unforgiving of mistakes

Coping mechanisms

It can be difficult to live life as a perfectionist, especially when you feel like you always need to excel at everything. However, you can live a healthy life by using healthy coping mechanisms.

A. Mindfulness

Practising mindfulness is one of the best ways of coping with perfectionism, especially because perfectionism is often an unconscious trait. By consciously deciding that you want to cope with perfectionism in a healthy manner, you become more capable of curbing your more unrealistic tendencies. This makes it easier to cope with stress.

B. Cognitive-behavioural therapy

Therapy is a great way to cope with perfectionism. A trained therapist can guide you and draw your attention to unhealthy traits that could affect your life negatively. Through therapy, you become equipped with the knowledge you need to curb yourself when perfectionism threatens to overwhelm you.

C. Self-compassion

It is important to extend grace and kindness to yourself. This will make it easier to handle disappointments and personal failures when they occur. You need to accept that you can’t control everything about you, and you shouldn’t try to. This reduces the obsessiveness that comes with perfectionism.

D. Setting realistic goals

You also need to set realistic goals for yourself. This will ensure that you can perform to the best of your ability instead of overexerting yourself. It is difficult to excel at anything when your goals are unrealistic. Stress levels reduce when you can work towards realistic goals with a feasible plan.

pencils organized to perfection

Tips and strategies to manage perfectionism

While it may seem unprofessional, or feel like settling, embracing good enough can improve your job performance and advance your career.

Try these tips and strategies to minimise your perfectionist tendencies and increase your efficiency at work:

Let go of your ego. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but fastidiousness can be prideful. Instead, embrace your imperfections with authenticity and vulnerability.

Start at the end. Set goals and plan backwards so you know how long a project will take and you can meet your deadlines.

Prioritise. Putting projects and tasks in order of importance helps to manage your time. When you’re on a schedule, you’re more aware when you’re spending too much time on small details.

Learn from mistakes. To paraphrase Edison, mistakes aren’t failures, they tell you how not to do something.

Celebrate success. Taking pride in the things you and your team have done well helps you embrace an optimistic mindset that will move your next project forward.

Cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is especially helpful if you tend to immerse in self-criticism or ruminate on the possibility of failure. Learn to recognise when you’re thinking in circles and interrupt that mindset.

Step back from roadblocks. Just like mindfulness, if you focus on the details for too long, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. There’s always a way around any obstacle.

Focus on the end-goal. When you’re overset with challenges and the possibility of failure, remind yourself that you will get through the project.

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Coaching can help you embrace imperfection at work

Perfection is unattainable – by you and your team. If you find yourself settling for nothing less than perfect, you may be holding your company and yourself back from real success. In the meantime, you are distancing yourself from your team and causing yourself undue stress. If you can’t manage to get out of your own way – or the way of your team – digital coaching can help you to let go of your perfectionist mindset.

At CoachHub, we’re committed to providing an excellent coaching framework for leaders and employees, that helps you to embrace good enough. So, you can reach your business goals faster and move on to the next project.

If you are a perfectionist, you should remember that you can seek help to develop better coping mechanisms and responses to life. This is necessary for you to become more self aware and take care of yourself effectively so you don’t push yourself to unrealistic limits.

Samuel Olawole
Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specialises in creating exciting content across a wide range of topics and industries. When he’s not writing, you can find him travelling or listening to good music.

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