6 Hidden Downsides of Perfectionism

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This is part 2 of my 3-part series on perfectionism: why being a perfectionist has its problems, the downsides of perfectionism, and how to overcome these downsides.

“Perfectionists are their own devils.” – Jack Kirby

“Perfectionists vary in their behaviors: some strive to conceal their imperfections; others attempt to project an image of perfection.” – Flett, York University

On the surface, being a perfectionist seems perfect. Not only do you have a keen eye for details, you are always ready to push yourself to achieve that next big thing, that goal that nobody has achieved before. You are always exceeding expectations with the work you do, and the quality of your output is second to none.

Yet, being a perfectionist has its downsides. These downsides are not apparent until you take a step back to think about your perfectionism and how it has been serving you.

Issue #1: Procrastination

Clock — Leaving things to last minute

(Image: Ralf Appelt)

While this may seem ironic, procrastination is a recurring issue for some perfectionists. I’ve found that it seems to affect some more than others — for example, my pain point as a perfectionist isn’t really procrastination, but something else as you’ll know later in the article — but it is a big issue for some. I’ve worked with clients who are chronic perfectionists, and some would heavily procrastinate on their own goals, even though these are goals they feel passionately about.

Why is that so? Firstly, a perfectionist tends to conjure up an immaculate vision of how things should be. So when it’s time to get to work, they become extremely detail oriented, start to obsess about every single thing, get weighed down by every problem, and get caught up by the need to create everything perfectly. Over time, the “pain” of such intricate attention becomes too painful, and this subsequently leads to procrastination — putting off a task to get some relief, but is in actual fact pushing away the pain that they create with each task.

Secondly, perfectionists are specific about having the perfect conditions before they get to work. First they need to have enough time, then they need to have ABC in place, and then they need XYZ in place, and then they’ll feel that they’re ready to start. As long as any one item isn’t there, they won’t feel like starting. They’d just put things off again and again, just to wait for that “perfect” moment to do things in the “perfect” way.

Of course, at the end of the day the perfectionist is only fooling themselves. That’s because when you put off something in the name of perfectionism, you wind up getting nothing done. That’s worse than if you had simply tried — even if the output is lousy, at least it’s something to build on. Perfectionism that leads to procrastination thus becomes a trap where someone puts off their goals in the name of “perfection.”

Issue #2: Skewed view of reality (Pushing past diminishing returns)

Skewed view

(Image: r0b0tsrfun)

Recently, I realized that I have very low latent inhibition. That means I’m very sensitive to surrounding stimuli, which means I tend to pick up sounds, visuals, words, feelings, behaviors, etc. very readily, more so than the regular person.

Now, that’s terrific as it means being able to pick up details readily. I’m able to spot mistakes and gaps quickly just by seeing things, and thereafter correct them. But the crazy part about this is that as a perfectionist, I never know when to stop. I never know when to stop tweaking things, to stop improving on things, and basically to close the lid on a project.

An example is my podcasts and course video recordings. I personally record these sessions, edit them, and then publish them. While everyone hears the final version of the files, what they don’t know is the amount of work that goes behind editing each file. Many times I would record and re-record a segment because I feel it doesn’t deliver my point as clearly. On average, I can re-record a segment 5–7 times, sometimes more. Many times I can record and re-record an entire course section or podcast episode because I feel it can be better. And the endless hours, days, I spend editing each audio, removing “clicks” and slight pauses, adding pauses for effect, removing digressions, and removing small fumbles? It’s insane.

Now, the thing is that such editing is important, and is in fact the crucial difference between unpolished work and great output. Yet, it’s easy to have a skewed view of what’s good or not good enough as a perfectionist.

For example, I’ve been listening to some very popular and top-rated podcasts lately as a way to get benchmarks and ideas for my show. I realized, much to my surprise, that the very “errors” that I spend hours, even days, editing in my recordings are littered everywhere in said podcasts! Mouth clicks, fumbles, saliva sounds, occasional explosives, and even digressions by the host. More importantly, the presence of these errors did not prevent me from getting value from the episodes. I’m still able to benefit immensely despite these “errors,” which, if you think about it, are no different than what you’d hear in a conversation. While I had thought that these were make-or-break issues that would severely affect the quality of a recording, they don’t — as long as not occurring in excess.

What does it mean? As a perfectionist, it’s common to have a very precise, extreme view of how every piece of work should look. This view is probably based on sound grounds, such as high personal standards and experience.

Yet, this view may sometimes be skewed, in that while a perfectionist may think that a piece of work must satisfy A, B, C, D, and E criteria in order to be considered awesome, perhaps that isn’t the case. Maybe the quality of the work is based on factors A and B, more so than C, D, and E. But in trying to perfect every single thing, sometimes we may miss this big picture. Sometimes, we may also exhaust ourselves emotionally and expend a large amount of time just to achieve that final perfect image. But to what end?

Issue #3: Deep-seated unhappiness

Eyelashes - "I'm not happy being myself"

(Image: Mariela BM)

I can’t speak for all perfectionists, but between myself and the perfectionists I have worked with in coaching, I’ve found that many of us go through internal struggles, perhaps more so than the usual person, due to our perfectionism.

For myself, I often struggle with my perfectionism where I (a) beat myself up for things that I did wrongly or are not up to my satisfaction, and (b) blame myself for not getting as much as I want done. Many times I tell Ken, “I hate myself” or “I’m a lousy person” as I see so many things that I wish to do, but haven’t completed yet. Many times, I fault myself for others’ issues, even though it’s not my fault at all. My mission is to help others grow, and in cases where I see that people aren’t moving forward, even if it may have nothing to do with me, even if I have already tried my best, I would still fault myself for it.

Working with perfectionists in my courses, I’ve seen how their perfectionism creates great struggle and unhappiness for themselves too. They struggle with their to-do’s, yet they refuse to ask for help. They set sky-high expectations for their work, yet they procrastinate with their tasks. They want to achieve perfection and precision in everything, yet this precision creates great unhappiness for themselves.

In the end, they build this wall of pain, this cave of misery, that they grief and suffer in each day.

We can see this struggle happening for very accomplished perfectionists as well. Lady Gaga, famed pop singer, admits to experiencing bouts of unhappiness with her work, due to her perfectionist tendencies. She says, “I am perpetually unhappy with what I create. Even though I might tell you that [my song] ‘Edge Of Glory’ is a pop masterpiece, when it’s all said and finished there will be things I dread, and every time I listen to it I’ll hear them.”

Her obsession with achieving perfection also gives her anxiety as she’s constantly worried that her shows won’t go well. She says, “I’m very bossy. I don’t move on. I vomit in the bathroom before every show. I can scream my head off if I see one light fixture out. I’m very detailed — every minute of the show has got to be perfect.”

Akon, a record producer who has worked with pop legend and known perfectionist Michael Jackson before, says that MJ was never satisfied due to his perfectionism. Akon says in an MTV interview, “He was never satisfied. Like, we might have passed up ideas that I know for a fact were smashes. He’d be like, ‘Nah, nah — we got to come up with something better.’ [But] we can never do better ’cause his expectation was so high. It was almost to a point where we would have to get a record and I would believe in it and just put it out, ’cause it would never come out ’cause he always believed we could do better.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson revealed in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey that he was a perfectionist and was never pleased with any of his work. It is suspected that his extreme perfectionism might have contributed to his depression. He died in 2009 from over-medication that led to a cardiac arrest.

Of course, the emotional hurdles of a perfectionist varies from person to person. Some experience recurring feelings of dissatisfaction, while some are perpetually crippled by the regret of seemingly small things. The point is that while being a perfectionist may seem glorifying, a perfectionist suffers from deep pain, guilt, and immense self-expectations. Without keeping this in check, perfectionists can become depressed. Some can be clinically depressed. In extreme cases, extreme perfectionism combined with low self-worth and a firm refusal to seek help may lead to suicide or actions that lead to their slow death (see next point).

Issue #4: Disregard for your health

Guy working on a laptop

(Image: markdrasutis)

Many perfectionists are obsessed with achieving a certain standard, to the point where they pay little regard to their health.

I used to be just like this, though I’m working on it. I used to, in the quest of perfecting my work, work till 6–7am in the morning, sometimes later. Often times it’s not that I don’t care about my health, but that I find my mission and deadlines more important than 1–2 days of early sleep. So for example, if I had a live course on Saturday, I’d work till wee hours through the week as I fine-tuned my materials. Then, I’d work till wee hours through the weekend as I perfected my recordings and sent them to my participants.

But this is obviously not sustainable. With my endless workload, I’d wind up sleeping late for pretty much all days of the year. While I did this with no health ramifications in my teens and 20s (I’m 31 as of this writing), I don’t think this will persist if I continue my reckless, health-depriving behavior.

With perfectionists in general, there have been studies that point to poorer health among them:

  • In a 2010 study by the University of Coimbra (Portugal), it was found that socially prescribed perfectionists had more difficulty falling and staying asleep than other students. One reason is because they’re worried about failing and being labeled as failures. Insufficient sleep is known to raise the risk of diabetes, some cancers, heart attacks, stroke, and early Alzheimer’s. [Source]
  • In a study of 383 people from Sweden, it was found that perfectionism correlated with the degree of sleep problem. In a second study of 70 patients with persistent insomnia from a sleep disorders clinic, it was found that these patients have significantly higher scores than normal on perfectionism. It is hypothesized that perfectionism may serve as a predisposing factor for the development of persistent insomnia. [Source]
  • In a study of 100 heart attack patients, perfectionists were found to recover more slowly and at higher risk of further cardiac problems. 3 factors were identified that slowed down their recovery: (1) stress from the pressure that the perfectionists put on themselves; (2) chronic negative emotions from never feeling joy in their achievements; and (3) lack of social support.
  • This is backed up by a Dutch study published in the journal Circulation in 2010, involving more than 6,000 heart disease patients. Perfectionists with a negative outlook were 3X more likely to experience more heart problems than those with positive personalities.
  • A 2007 research from the University of Auckland suggests that perfectionists are more prone to developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) after a bout of food poisoning. The researchers followed up with 620 people who had an acute episode of food poisoning and found those who developed IBS were more likely to have perfectionist tendencies, such as carrying on regardless until they were forced to rest. [Source]

(More on the negative effects of perfectionism on physical health here.)

Does that mean that a perfectionist will automatically have bad health? Not really. What it means is that the way perfectionists often disregard their health in the name of work and perfection results in the deterioration of their health. Their constant worrying about achieving a certain standard also serves as a bedrock for conditions like insomnia, heart diseases, and headaches. Incidentally, some perfectionists turn to compulsive eating or drinking to quell their unhappiness [Source #1, Source #2]. In the end, a perfectionist, through years of self-neglect, causes their good health to crumble away.

Issue #5: Difficulty in letting go

Clenched fist

(Image: Benjamin Chan)

Perfectionists have difficulty letting go. Letting go in terms of control of their work; mistakes that they made; and imperfections.

This is why if you’re a perfectionist, you probably have experienced the following:

  • You are afraid of delegating, because you’re worried that people would mess up your work.
  • You can’t stop thinking about work, because you are afraid everything will crash when you do.
  • Even after you delegate, you keep worrying about what’s going to happen. You micro-manage, even when your staff is doing fine.
  • You spend a lot of time correcting tiny mistakes that don’t make a difference.
  • You keep thinking about past “failures” even though they have long passed.

This refusal to let go causes you to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, as you carry on more responsibilities in your life. In the end, you feel extremely weighed down by every little thing, even though you have no reason to feel this way.

Issue #6: Compromised relationships

Couple by the road

(Image: Tom)

Last but not least, perfectionism can often lead to compromised relationships.

Why? As a perfectionist, you often prioritize the perfection of your work above all things, including relationships. This means less quality time with people you love. When the going gets tough, you would rather devote all your time to perfect your work, hence leaving your relationships in the back burner.

Some perfectionists bring their work struggles into their relationships, lashing out at their loved ones when things are not going well. Because perfectionists associate themselves so personally with their performance, their friends and family get negatively affected when work isn’t going well for the perfectionist, which is — let’s face it — almost all the time due to their impossibly high standards.

Some perfectionists may even impose their standards of perfection on their loved ones, where they expect their spouse or family member to uphold similar standards as them. An example would be a mom expecting her child to score 100 marks in their tests all the time, or a wife/husband blaming their partner for not doing housework in a particular way, as per their vision.

Clearly, such pressure only weighs down on your relationships. In the end, not only does perfectionism hollow you out, you also drain your own relationships and push your loved ones away.

How About You?

Can you relate to any of the above? Which downside do you experience as a perfectionist?

Yet, despite these downsides, it is possible to make the best out of perfectionism and manage it such that it doesn’t compromise on your health or your life. Proceed to part 3: How To Overcome Perfectionism: Your Complete Guide

This is part 2 of my 3-part series on perfectionism: why being a perfectionist has its problems, the downsides of perfectionism, and how to overcome these downsides.