6 Hidden Downsides of Perfectionism

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This is part 2 of my 3-part series on perfectionism: how to tell if you’re a perfectionist, the hidden downsides of perfectionism, and how to overcome them.

“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, but you are always ready to push yourself to achieve that next big thing. You always exceed expectations with your work and the quality of your output is second to none.

Yet being a perfectionist has its downsides. These downsides can include procrastination, loss of productivity, unhappiness, and compromised relationships.

Issue #1: Procrastination

Clock — Leaving things to last minute

(Image: Ralf Appelt)

Believe it or not, procrastination is a recurring issue for some perfectionists. I’ve found that it affects 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 of my clients.

Firstly, a perfectionist often has an immaculate vision of how things should be. While everyone may see 2-3 details, a perfectionist can see 20 details, along with impossible expectations on how they should be done.

So when it’s time to get to work, they get caught up in all the details. Feeling overwhelmed, they choose not to start, instead waiting for the perfect moment when they feel ready to work on their goal.

Secondly, a perfectionist often seeks perfect conditions before they get to work. First they want A, B, and C in place, then they want D, E, and F in place, then they will start.

While the first factor is about emotional readiness, here it’s about situational readiness — where all elements must be perfect and in place. As long as any one thing isn’t there, they won’t want to start. They’ll just put things off again and again, waiting for the “perfect” moment to do things “perfectly.”

Of course, at the end of the day, the perfectionist is only fooling themselves. 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 it. Perfectionism that leads to procrastination is a trap because nothing gets done in the name of perfection.

Issue #2: Skewed view of reality (Focus on too many details)

Skewed view

(Image: r0b0tsrfun)

As a perfectionist, it’s easy to have a skewed view of reality, because you see details that no one can see. This can make you act in neurotic ways and think that everything is important, to the point that you’re always perfecting every little thing.

This is very true for me. As a person, I have very low latent inhibition, which means that I’m very sensitive to every detail. I tend to pick up sounds, visuals, and words very readily, more so than the regular person. While this helps me in work as I can fix issues easily, as a perfectionist, I don’t know when to stop. I don’t know when to stop tweaking things and basically move on from a project.

An example is podcast editing. I personally record and edit my podcasts. Many times I would re-record a segment because I don’t feel that it delivers my point the way I want. On average, I can re-record a segment 5–7 times, sometimes more. I also spend a lot of time, sometimes hours and days, removing mouth “clicks,” pauses, digressions, and small fumbles. It’s insane.

While such editing is important, it’s easy to have a skewed view of what’s good or not as a perfectionist. For example, I was listening to some top-rated podcasts lately to get benchmarks and ideas for my own podcast. Much to my surprise, I realized that the very “errors” I’m constantly editing for my recordings are littered everywhere in them! Mouth clicks, fumbles, saliva sounds, long digressions, etc. — they got them all.

Yet the presence of these issues did not prevent me from getting value from these podcasts. In fact, if you think about it, they are things you hear in a regular conversation. While I initially thought that these were critical mistakes that would diminish a podcast’s quality, they aren’t — as long as not in excess.

As a perfectionist, we have a very clear view of how everything should look. Yet this view can be skewed, in that while a perfectionist may think that a piece of work must satisfy criteria A-G to be considered awesome, maybe the quality of the work is really based on criteria A only.

In trying to perfect every little thing, we miss the big picture. We also exhaust ourselves emotionally as we spend all our time to achieve our perfect vision, which then causes unhappiness (see next point).

Issue #3: Deep inner unhappiness

Eyelashes - "I'm not happy being myself"

(Image: Mariela BM)

A perfectionist can experience deep inner unhappiness as he/she is often unhappy with themselves and their work.

For myself, I often struggle with perfectionism where I (a) beat myself up for things that I did wrong or are not up to my satisfaction, and (b) blame myself for not getting as much as I want to get done. Sometimes I tell my husband, “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.

Working with perfectionists in my courses, I’ve seen how they often face great struggle too with their perfectionism. They struggle with their tasks, 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 in everything, yet this precision creates great unhappiness for them.

This struggle happens for very accomplished perfectionists too. 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 a perfectionist seems put together on the outside, a perfectionist suffers from deep pain, guilt, and immense self-expectations.

Without keeping this in check, perfectionists can become depressed. In extreme cases, extreme perfectionism combined with low self-worth and a firm refusal to seek help may lead to a decline in mental and physical health (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’ve learned to let go and put health as a priority. I used to, in the quest of perfecting my work, work till 6-7am in the morning, sometimes later.

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 sleep. So for example, if I had a live course on Saturday, I’d work till the wee hours through the week as I fine-tuned my materials. Then, I’d work till the wee hours through the weekend as I perfected my recordings and sent them to my participants.

But this was obviously not sustainable. With my endless workload, I’d wind up sleeping late for pretty much all days of the year. Over time, I realized this was very unhealthy and I needed to prioritize my health.

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 that 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. Three 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? No. 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 disease, and headache.

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 letting go

Clenched fist

(Image: Benjamin Chan)

Perfectionists have difficulty letting go — be it letting go of their work, mistakes that they made; and imperfections.

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 worry 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 makes you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders as you carry 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: Compromising your relationships

Couple by the road

(Image: Tom)

Last but not least, perfectionism often leads 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 perfecting your work, hence leaving your relationships on 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 their worth 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 on 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, but you also drain your 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?

Despite these downsides, it is possible to make the best out of perfectionism and manage it such that it doesn’t compromise 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: how to tell if you’re a perfectionist, the hidden downsides of perfectionism, and how to overcome them.