4 Signs Your Perfectionism Is Becoming Toxic At Work

High expectations for yourself and others is helpful, but there's a tipping point at which it does more harm than good.

Wanting to do your best is an admirable goal. But when high expectations become impossible and unrealistic, you are on the road to becoming a perfectionist.

The pursuit of perfectionism is not always a bad thing. Research has found that people who hold themselves to high standards are thorough and engaged with their work and are motivated to succeed.

But there’s a tipping point when the rigid standards of perfectionism start to do more harm than good.

“Perfectionism is a form of anxiety,” said Shannon Garcia, a psychotherapist at States of Wellness Counseling in Illinois and Wisconsin. “Your perfectionism may be becoming something that is holding you back from progressing in your career when you either start avoiding tasks out of fear it will not be completed perfectly or you spend an excessive amount of time trying to make something perfect.”

Here are the signs you are tipping over into a toxic perfectionist mindset — and the negative consequences this can have on your health. If even just one of these statements is true of you, it could be time for self-reflection.

1. You only ruminate on what you didn’t do, which makes you unable to reflect on what you did do.

If you can’t reflect on what you’ve accomplished, you are never going to be satisfied. For a perfectionist grading their job performance, “From 0 to 99 is bad. [The] 100 mark is acceptable,” explained Perpetua Neo, a psychologist and executive coach.

Perfectionists don’t take in compliments and they obsess over mistakes. And putting that unsustainable pressure on yourself is going to burn you out.

Under a perfectionist mindset, when you reach your goal, your next thought is only, “What’s next?” said New Jersey-based psychotherapist Angela Clack.

“They look at their competitor to see how they can do it better and the finish line just keeps moving further and further out until we burn out,” Clack said. “[They] never get to enjoy the moment of [their] wins.”

Burnout results from chronic workplace stress and can wreck your health in the long run. It’s associated with unending fatigue, headaches, insomnia, depressive symptoms, and other poor health outcomes.

That’s why it’s so important to ease up and take the time to feel good about what you did do after you finish a task. This self-awareness not only helps you reflect on your career but can also help ward off unhealthy perfectionist tendencies.

2. You are overly worried about what will happen if you or your co-workers don’t reach your high standards.

For a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers from Miami University, the University of Florida and Georgia Tech analyzed 95 previous studies and found that there are two types of perfectionists: excellence-seeking perfectionists who demand excessively high standards for themselves and others, and failure-avoiding perfectionists who are “characterized by an obsessive concern about, and an aversion to, failing to reach extremely high performance standards,” study co-author and management professor Laurens Steed put it to HuffPost.

In other words, if you have meltdowns over the thought of not finishing an assignment to your standards, that’s a sign you could be a failure-avoiding perfectionist. And that’s a problem.

Steed’s study found that burnout, stress and anxiety were more strongly related to failure-avoiding perfectionism, while excellence-seeking perfectionism was more tied to benefits like motivation and engagement.

Overall, being a perfectionist did not improve job performance, regardless of which type a person was.

“Our results suggested that perfectionism is largely not helpful in the workplace. While being highly perfectionistic can yield some beneficial outcomes, these benefits can be offset with negative outcomes, and there was no overall performance effect,” Steed said.

3. You keep missing deadlines because you don’t think your work is good enough.

Garcia said a sign that your perfectionism is doing more harm than good is when it doesn’t allow you to get anything done.

“You fine-tune work assignments over and over, deadlines get pushed because what you’re working on never feels good enough, or you may even have trouble starting a work task out of fear you will not be able to do it perfectly,” she said.

When you become notorious on your team for missing deadlines, you may gain an unflattering work reputation for being unreliable. Once that perception sticks, you will find it hard to advance in your career.

Garcia finds that perfectionism can not only lead to burnout but also frustration from your boss and co-workers and ongoing stress that carries over from work to your home life.

“If you are cranky, irritable, demanding or difficult to manage as an employee or even in leadership as a result of the inner struggle to be perfect, you will likely impact and influence the team members and co-workers connected to you, creating uncomfortable interactions,” Clack said.

4. You don’t socialize because you are too worried about coming off as “not perfect.”

Neo said another sign that your perfectionism is becoming harmful is when you cannot truly listen or engage with colleagues or loved ones because you are too worried about upholding a perfect self-image.

“A person could let their perfectionism hold them back from being around their co-workers because if co-workers know the ‘real them’... nobody is going to like them,” she said. “They are incredibly pressured by themselves to put on this social mask.”

Psychologists have found that, along with perfectionists who set unrealistic standards for themselves, there are “socially prescribed” perfectionists that feel like impossible standards are being forced upon them by society or the people around them. Socially prescribed perfectionism has been associated with depression and other mental health conditions.

Gordon Flett, a psychologist who has researched this link, has said the reason socially prescribed perfectionists may have poor health outcomes is that this kind of perfectionism “has an element of pressure combined with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness,” he told the American Psychological Association. Socially prescribed perfectionists tend to feel that “the better I do, the better I’m expected to do,” he said.

If you are wondering whether your perfectionism is helping or hurting your career, Neo said, ask yourself: “Is it making your life shrink? Is it making you unhappy, anxious, basically a shadow of who you are? [Do you feel like] there is a growing chasm between the person you are presenting on the outside, but inside you are feeling like things are going to crumble at any time?”

If any of your answers are yes, perfectionism is no longer serving you, and you should consider redefining your standards to “good enough,” she said.

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