Perfectionism: always aiming higher but at what cost?

Mar 20, 2020

5 mins

Perfectionism: always aiming higher but at what cost?
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

What’s your biggest weakness? “I’m a perfectionist.” What recent graduate doesn’t think that answer is the ideal response to this trick interview question. Is it a fake weakness, though, or an actual weakness? Working with a perfectionist means guaranteed good work but it is not without hassle. We take a look at the good and bad sides of this personality trait from the perspectives of those who deal with it on a daily basis.

Inside the head of a perfectionist

Perfectionism is the constant search for excellence, the inability to be content with work that is simply “good”, whether it’s your own or that of others. According to psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, we’re all perfectionists, simply to different degrees. They have observed three degrees of perfectionism.

  • “Self-oriented” perfectionism. This leads to personal expectations that are excessively high. Perfectionists are conscientious, turning in work that’s free of errors, even when the job is very demanding. The cost of achieving this is working relentlessly hard.
  • “Other-oriented” perfectionism. This is when excellence is demanded of others, who are expected to give their best and even surpass themselves. But this is accompanied by criticism — expressed or implied—that can create tension or conflict within professional relationships.
  • “Socially prescribed” perfectionism. This is formed from the expectations of society. It is what perfectionists think is expected of them. It offers the perfectionist a keen understanding of the mechanisms of success, but encourages them to seek perfection always and on every level. They strive to be the most professional, most disciplined, most visionary, most creative and friendliest.

Psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill recently combined results of several studies conducted between 1989 and 2016 on more than 40,000 American, Canadian and British students. They observed a significant increase in the level of work demanded and in the rate of socially prescribed perfectionism, which can quickly lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

Essentially, the younger generation has internalised the belief that everything should be perfect. That includes themselves, their life, their work and even their loved ones. In the work environment, that translates into unrealistic expectations for themselves (“I have to get a promotion in six months in order to advance my career”), towards their colleagues who must execute perfect work and their company (“where’s our foosball game?”). These high expectations can help them to accomplish big goals, but they can also cause a lot of frustration.

Perfectionists and their neuroses

Perfectionism at work has some known advantages. It results in perseverance, resilience and attention to detail. But it can also cause difficulties, both for the perfectionists themselves and for their colleagues.


Producing perfect work implies that the conditions to execute it must be, well, perfect. The risk? Expecting those conditions when you start. Some perfectionists are also big procrastinators, unable to get started as they are too worried about producing something that isn’t perfect. “When I was younger, I could spend hours reorganising my office or choosing the colour of my highlighters before starting a difficult project at home. I’ve kept some of these behaviours. My brain can be quite creative when it comes to finding little details to deal with before getting started!” said Anna, a digital consultant. What’s the solution? Try working with a go-getter who will give you the necessary push to start a project. Then take advantage of your perfectionism to improve it afterwards.

Exaggerated performance standards

“The perfectionist does not worry about time and suffering, as long as the result is there,” said Julien, a managing editor. The perfectionist sets rules and applies them. Consequently, they rarely reach their objectives because they’re too ambitious. This is a tendency that Julien has learned to channel over time. “When you manage like I do, you have to be hard on yourself. You have to learn to deal with other ways of functioning. I’m aware now that I can’t expect as much from others as I expect from myself,” he said.

The difficulty of letting go

The perfectionist has a hard time delegating or being okay with a mediocre result. This is the case for Camille, an HR manager. “I’m supposed to rely on different teams whose work isn’t always up to par. I end up doing both their work and mine. My manager told me to stop doing that so they’d learn to take responsibility, but I have too much of a professional conscience to do that. So I’m overwhelmed with work, and I’m solely responsible for that.” One of the keys to help you avoid burning out and learn to let go is to focus on the person receiving the final project, and not the intermediaries. Ask yourself what are the three elements that will make the project good for that person? Focusing on limited points of attention will help the perfectionist to calm their never-ending search for perfection.

Self-criticism and permanent doubts

Since nothing is ever up to par, the perfectionist is constantly dissatisfied. They have a tendency to be incapable of enjoying a win, because it could always have been better. “I could spend hours improving an email, some material or a presentation. Changing a comma, some wording, checking that everything is formatted well. Now I’m strict with myself. I impose deadlines on myself and I send things as they are. The worst part is that people are often satisfied with the result,” said Anna. It’s difficult for the perfectionist to have the necessary perspective to judge their own work. So, like Anna, you need to learn to move on to something else and trust your colleagues when they say that enough has been done.

“It’s happened that I’ve been called a stickler for detail, as I can get caught up in the minutiae,” Julien said. Many perfectionists are aware of their idiosyncrasies and they also know that perfection is subjective. Camille is working on that at the moment. “I’m trying to discern what is truly poorly done from what is just done differently,” said Camille.

This also raises the question of being able to make mistakes. Can you do everything correctly? Is that even a good thing? Not necessarily. Because the hitches, the discrepancies and the oddities often turn out to be valuable. Just like failure, which is a vehicle—even a condition—for progress. So those who are slaves to their fear of imperfection are condemning themselves to a supporting role in the company.

It’s an exhausting character trait and perfectionists are often its first victims. But it is one that can equally be turned into opportunity because perfectionists push the people around them to improve, to give their very best and to progress. Those idiosyncrasies can mellow with time and introspection too. “It’s both a good and bad quality. A good quality, because you can’t get something for nothing, trying to reach a certain level of perfection is necessary to progress professionally. But for it to remain a good quality, we have to learn to limit this quest for perfection,” said Julien.

Spot a perfectionist: 10 unmistakable signs

  • They called the slide whose title and paragraphs were off by a couple millimetres a “total mess”.
  • They have a satisfied smile when they glance at their shelf of perfectly arranged binders.
  • They can spend an hour correcting the mistakes on a 50-page document and feel a certain level of satisfaction.
  • Their desk is perfectly tidy when they leave at night (glancing disapprovingly at your coffee mug on top of a pile of precariously balanced files between your and your neighbour’s desks).
  • They spent three days reflecting after sending an email having forgotten the attachment (and yes, it can happen, even to them!)
  • They profoundly questioned their competence the day they couldn’t put staples in the stapler.
  • They apologise for being “terribly late” when arriving at 9.04AM instead of 9AM.
  • They find it scandalous that the canteen switched the Monday and Tuesday menus (you just can’t trust anyone).
  • Hearing the phrase, “There are a few more guesstimates, but this will cut it, right?” is like hearing nails on a blackboard for them.

And they immediately saw that this list was missing a tenth point.

Perfection is a subjective notion. What’s perfect for some won’t necessarily be so for others. It’s true that being demanding of yourself and others is a good quality to have. But it’s important also to know how to set limits and not go overboard in your efforts.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: WTTJ

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