9 ways that perfectionism can lead to burnout
First of all, let’s clear out a really common misunderstanding.
We believe that perfectionism is a healthy mindset that leads to perfect results, perfect achievements, perfect life, to perfection.
However, the truth is somewhat different: perfectionism is the stress we feel in order to be perceived as perfect by others or ourselves and the exhausting effort we put in order to deal with that stress.
In other words, perfectionism feels like we are not enough and we need to try more in order to become so. And when we say “try”, we mean try a lot.
The negative consequences of perfectionism are plenty, and here we will focus on one of the most common ones: burnout. Our mental well-being is at stake because perfectionism can become a pervasive way of thinking that inevitably affects our relationships with others, our relationship with ourselves, our growth, our happiness and our inner peace. How is perfectionism related to burnout?
1. Looking for trouble.
Being a perfectionist means that you want to prevent your project (also: your relationship, your work, your reputation) from “going south”. In order to do so, you are trying to predict all the worst cases scenarios and be prepared for them. As you can understand, your mental antennas are scanning all the time the situations around and ahead of you in order to find trouble. This kind of negative thinking, though, stays with you, becomes your way of living. You are only thinking of what could go wrong and overlooking what is going alright. But we are not wired to look at the negative side of life only. This one-sided negative way of thinking leads sooner or later to anxiety, depression, burnout, together with a bunch of physical symptoms of fatigue.
2. All by myself.
A perfectionist has somehow learned -and still believes- that in order to prove that they have done a good job, they need to do it all by themselves. If they ask for help and they get it, this means that they have compromised their effort, and that’s a declaration of weakness. Behind that decision, there is a strong all-or-nothing mindset: “Either I can do it all by myself or I can’t do it at all”. They want to be seen as strong, self-reliant and confident, and that leaves them struggling on their own for a long time. Moreover, they want to take the full credit of whatever they are putting effort on, so that’s another reason they don’t ask for help.
3. The grass is greener.
Another strong factor that leads a perfectionist into a burnout is comparisons. As we said in the beginning, a perfectionist is trying to be (seen as) the best. That means that they need to be aware all the time of how the competition is doing. They are always checking what the other colleague did, what the other mom did, what the other partner did, in order to counter-respond with something better and more impressive. That is exhausting, though, as you can understand, because there will always be someone who has done something more or in a better way, and chasing after that is just a bottomless pit.
4. Raising the bar.
A perfectionist will be always oriented towards growth and increasing their potential. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is a thin line between growing and being restless. Perfectionists most of the time set a new goal before they complete the current one. As you can understand, there is an overlap between the old and the new, and therefore it is really hard for them to see that they have achieved a goal already, and that now they are moving to the next chapter. What is interesting also is that when a perfectionist completes a goal and they are congratulated for that, they almost always respond with a deflating answer, such as “It was not that great..” or “That was just basic for me”, and that happens because they have already raised the bar for themselves. Can you imagine how easily they could burnout because of that strategy?
5. No break for me.
A perfectionist rarely takes a break. It may seem sometimes that they are on a break, doing other activities, but this is not a real break. This is just procrastination: they have been struggling with a difficult task or role, and therefore they are now distracting themselves with something else, while holding a lot of guilt inside them and feeling bad about not doing what they are supposed to. A perfectionism doesn’t see the value in self-care, and therefore they don’t create time for themselves and for the activities they like. Not having a break, though, from such an exhausting and demanding agenda is not sustainable. A healthy mind cannot exist without a respectful amount of breaks, rest and pleasant activities. Our system will protest sooner or later, one way or another.
6. It's all about the achievement.
A perfectionist is strongly oriented towards achievements, accomplishments, results and visible growth. What’s wrong with that? Well, on one hand this is what we all want. To grow and develop. On the other hand, a perfectionist cannot enjoy the space in between or towards the achievements. A manager working on a project will be only satisfied when she has the desired result and even if the team worked really well and there were several wins during the project, this will not count for her. A person who learns drawing will not be happy and relaxed while drawing, but only if the ending result will be a painting worth to be hung on the wall of a gallery. Not enjoying the process and not rewarding ourselves for the things we learn and not only for the things we achieve can lead to burnout, as we will inevitably be too often disappointed with ourselves, with things going slowly or with things we can’t control.
7. Work-Life balance: 1-0
A perfectionist is, as we said above, task- and result-oriented. That means that many perfectionists among us can be also recognised as workaholics. They work long hours, they talk only about work, they meet people only if they are related to work, they think about work even when they are with friends and family. In short, it’s all about work-work-work.
However, putting personal life aside doesn’t help with our mental balance. There is no time to decompress, to socialise, to let go of stressful thoughts, to build relationships, to see the big picture. Now, if one has nothing to hang on to in his personal life (because no time was devoted to that) and at the same time there is a setback at work (the work that they have put so much effort on), can you imagine how stressful and shattering that scenario may be?
8. No celebration
A perfectionist doesn’t celebrate the victorious moments of their life. If you ask them about their successes, they would say that they were happy but they didn’t “do anything special about it”. They are also not so comfortable with compliments. In fact, they would try to turn the attention to someone else: “It was because of my wife/husband that I finished my course successfully”. Now, if a perfectionist spends so much time working on a project and at the same time having no time for the reward, the celebration, the praise, the validation, the acknowledgement, how is it possible that they would find the motivation to continue? Sooner or later, they will be depleted of their drive, their passion and their motivation. A.k.a. burnout.
9. Low self-confidence
Taking into consideration all the above, we can understand a little bit more about the psychology of a perfectionist: a person who stresses how others see him and whether he lacks or is behind in comparison to them, who ruminates over negative possible scenarios, who raises the expectations for himself all the time, who beats himself up all the time, who has little leverage from his personal life, who doesn’t give himself a pat on the back, who constantly doubts and questions his own worth. As a result, as you can imagine, his self-confidence is really low (even though he is projecting a powerful and confident image to others) and he is definitely yearning for acceptance.
Perfectionism doesn’t lead to perfection. It leads to burnout.
The sooner we notice all these micro-behaviors and the negative thoughts that start creeping into our life, the better protected we will become in order to avoid a burnout, anxiety or depression, or other symptoms such as sleeping or health problems associated with stress that has been accumulated for a long time.
Our suggestion: Start changing some of the old (unhealthy) habits, connect with the people around you, spare yourself some me-time, try mindfulness, connect with nature, talk to a therapist, talk to a friend, and recalibrate your life for more inner peace and balance.
Take action now.
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