The Problem with Perfection

The Mental Health Impact of a Culture of Perfection

What is happening in the world today is a harsh lesson in why perfection is impossible. There is no perfect solution to our current situation. No magic wand that is going to solve everyone’s difficulties or heal everyone’s trauma. We are challenged to find a way to accept positive progress as for many of us waiting for perfection isn’t an option. If you’re a perfectionist or are used to working in an environment where perfection is expected this may well be even more challenging.

A culture of perfectionism in the workplace can prove toxic and have huge negative consequences for mental well-being. But what are the problems with perfection? How can striving for perfection be anything other than positive? By its very nature perfection is subjective. What perfection looks like to me will not be the same as what it looks like for you. At best when we achieve what we perceive to be perfection in a particular area of our work or home life, it is a fleeting experience. We question why it doesn’t feel the way we thought it would and then we move the goal posts. At worst perfection can be paralysing – the fear of failure preventing us from moving forward at all.

I have lost track of the number of perfectionists I’ve worked with. Professionally successful but inwardly struggling with high levels of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Burnt out, stressed and unable to enjoy their successes. When our workplaces drive perfection what they are saying is that if you want our approval you need to be perfect. (which is impossible) In turn this is internalised as: ‘If I want to avoid disapproval and the shame and negative emotions that are attached to it, I must strive to be perfect in your eyes.’ Our self-esteem and value become linked to our ability to be perfect. This fuels a vicious cycle of stress, anxiety and depression.

This vicious cycle can lead to more presenteeism. If someone is striving for perfection, they won’t allow themselves the time off to take care of their mental well-being. They’re also less likely to feel able to tell their manager that they’re struggling. In the pursuit of perfection negative emotions become unacceptable. A further challenge is that we can’t pick and choose which emotions to tone down. If we numb the negative ones, we also reduce our capacity to feel positive emotions such as joy, hope and excitement.

Perfectionism also impacts mental wellbeing as over the longer term as it actually reduces motivation and creativity. It can be tempting to think that seeking to achieve perfection is motivational, but continually striving to achieve the impossible demands of perfection is overwhelming, exhausting and unmaintainable. We become afraid to make suggestions or be creative as the risk of failure and exposing our imperfection feels to great. Perfection can make it feel impossible to even begin a task where there is the risk of imperfection so we withdraw and become stuck.

Whilst there are clear problems with perfection there is still a very real fear that letting go of pushing for perfection will result in more negativity, less motivation, less productivity. That employees may take more time off as they’re less worried about perceived consequences. I’ve seen this at both an individual and organisational level. Letting go of perfection requires a leap of faith that you and your organisation can be driven by something healthier and something that positively impacts mental wellbeing.

So, what is the alternative?

What can we do to reduce the negative impacts of a culture of perfectionism on mental well-being? Here are three things to consider:

  • Promote progress over perfection. Moving forwards in a positive way towards excellent outcomes is healthy.
  • Ensure you are recognising and celebrating individual qualities and improvements as well as performance and achievements.
  • Talk about perfectionism and be clear about your expectations. This raises awareness and builds trust which will have a positive impact.

Supporting and promoting mental well-being will need to play a key role in the reintegration of your workforce. If you’d like to know more about how to promote and support mental well-being in your workplace both at an individual and organisational level, we’d love to hear from you. We’re always at the end of the phone or email and happy to answer any questions you may have.