The Negative Effects of Perfectionism: How Getting Things ‘Just Right’ Can Be So Wrong
Whilst many of us may perceive perfectionism as a positive trait- this is not always the case.
It has a dual identity. On one hand, professionals with perfectionistic traits tend to excel in the workplace, demonstrating strong attention to detail and engagement with their work¹.
On the other hand, these perfectionists can have excessively unrealistic expectations, which cause a great deal of stress for themselves and others².
But what exactly are the negative effects of perfectionism, and how do these qualities impact employee performance overall?
Positive and Negative Perfectionism
The term perfectionism refers to an individual who has a:
‘Extreme or obsessive striving for perfection, as in one’s work’.
Perfectionists can be categorized in two ways…
Positive perfectionists– are individuals with cognitions and behaviors that direct them to achieve high-level goals by positive reinforcement and willingness to gain success.
Negative perfectionists– on the other hand, are individuals who strive for unrealistic performance standards which include negative reinforcement and a fear of failure³ ⁴.
These two types of perfectionists, whilst similar in many ways, diverge in others.
Whilst positive perfectionists ultimately strive to do their best in all things, negative perfectionists are driven out of fear. Their anxiety surrounding failure can cause a multitude of problems.
Whilst positive perfectionism is normal and healthy, negative perfectionism can be described as ‘neurotic, unhealthy, or maladaptive’, causing a great deal of distress for the sufferer.
Signs of this include:
Feeling like you fail at everything you try
Struggling to relax and/or struggling to share thoughts and feelings
Becoming very controlling in your personal and professional relationships
Becoming obsessed with rules, lists, and work, or conversely becoming extremely apathetic⁵.
The Negative Effects of Perfectionism
Negative perfectionism can take a toll on an individual’s emotional well-being.
Perfectionists who are driven to achieve out of fear are much less likely to gain gratification and satisfaction from their work. The anxiety and distress caused by these feelings whilst motivating, tend not to be fulfilling- causing feelings of lethargy and emptiness.
Consequently, negative perfectionists working overtime to achieve their goals are far more likely to experience burnout. Several studies have found a link between perfectionism and emotional exhaustion, and the debilitating effects of it⁶.
This should be a significant concern for veterinary professionals, given the high emotional capacity needed to handle stressful/sensitive cases.
Struggling with emotional exhaustion? Click here to spot the signs of burnout.
Neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotions) is prolific within perfectionistic populations.
It has often been suggested anecdotally that the veterinary profession attracts personalities that are more susceptible to certain mental health diseases⁷. Veterinary students or graduates who initially thrived in their studies due to their perfectionistic tendencies may struggle later on due to the perceived costs of failure.
As a result, many individuals can become neurotic. This can be highly detrimental for veterinary professionals, as neuroticism has been linked to lower overall levels of resilience (a core necessity for any veterinary professional looking to succeed in their career)⁸. High levels of perfectionism have also been associated with diseases such as depression, anxiety, and OCD, problems that are already prolific within the veterinary community⁹ ¹⁰.
Studies have found a link between perfectionism and suicide, one study finding that 70 percent of young suicide victims have possessed qualities associated with perfectionism¹¹.
Negative Perfectionists are their own worst enemies when it comes to stress.
Although negative perfectionists fear failure, they persistently set themselves up for it by setting unrealistic goals. Not only are they stressed whilst working toward said goals (due to their need for perfection), but stressed when they inevitably fail to achieve them.
Whilst positive perfectionists can bounce back from setbacks and failures, negative perfectionists can become overwhelmed with negative thoughts, leading to unhealthy coping behaviors such as overeating. In extreme cases, this stress can translate into other parts of people’s lives, and develop into conditions such as binge eating, etc¹².
How to Overcome the Negative Effects of Perfectionism
Whilst perfectionism is completely normal, characteristics of negative perfectionism can be immensely damaging.
Thankfully, there are a few things negative perfectionists can do, such as practicing self-compassion, psychotherapy, mindfulness, and yoga¹³.
Perfectionism itself isn’t a bad quality, it’s the negative self-talk that drives it that is. Being your own worst enemy will not make you a smarter, harder-working veterinarian- it will probably do the exact opposite of that.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor are the skills needed to thrive in veterinary medicine.
Instead of beating yourself up whenever mistakes are made, accept that this is a part of learning. With every step back comes a step forward towards the career you always aspired for.
Perfectionists struggling with the day-to-day of practice life should check out our free webinar '4 Steps to a Happy and Successful Career as a Veterinarian' here.
In this webinar, Dr. Dave Nicol shares practical advice on how you can change your circumstances in veterinary medicine and have a happier, healthier career. And avoid the common mistakes that cause the biggest struggles.
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2- ‘The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism, According to Research.’ 27 Dec. 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-pros-and-cons-of-perfectionism-according-to-research. Accessed 3 May. 2021.
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9- ‘Perfectionism is a mental health risk – Vox.’ 5 Dec. 2019, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/11/27/20975989/perfect-mental-health-perfectionism. Accessed 3 May. 2021.
10- ‘Mental Health – Vetlife.’ https://www.vetlife.org.uk/mental-health/. Accessed 3 May. 2021.
11- ‘The effects of perfectionism on mental and physical health.’ 12 Oct. 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323323. Accessed 3 May. 2021.
12- ‘Positive perfectionism, negative perfectionism, and emotional eating ….’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28131966/. Accessed 4 May. 2021.
13- ‘The effects of perfectionism on mental and physical health.’ 12 Oct. 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323323. Accessed 4 May. 2021.