Being a perfectionist is often thought of as a plus: In a job interview, if a potential boss asks about your attention to detail or work ethic many would be eager to answer, “Oh, I’m a perfectionist.”
But it turns out, the life of a true perfectionist may not be so, well, perfect. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that this personality quirk has a dark side. Below, find out the surprising ways the quest for perfection can backfire.
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It may lead to burnout
That one co-worker (is it you?) who over-works because she's afraid she's not "good enough" might be approaching burnout fast. A new analysis of 43 studies published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review found that having high standards for achievement was helpful on the job, but that "perfectionistic concerns," i.e. desiring perfection because of constant worries about not measuring up, were associated with burnout in the workplace.
"Perfectionistic concerns capture fears and doubts about personal performance, which creates stress that can lead to burnout when people become cynical and stop caring," lead researcher Andrew Hill, an associate professor of sport psychology at York St. John University in England, explained in a press release.
It can mess with your body image
Perfectionism may contribute to the development of eating disorders in two ways, according to a 2013 study from the Journal of Eating Disorders. The first is what psychologists call “adaptive perfectionism”—basically, in the context of body image this is when a person puts a very high value on getting the “perfect body.” The other is "maladaptive perfectionism"—or when a person dwells on their own mistakes (or body flaws) and what other people think. After surveying more than 1,000 women between the ages of 28 and 40, the researchers found that women who exhibited maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism were much more concerned about how their bodies looked, compared to others. This preoccupation can in turn up risk for eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
"While some perfectionism is normal and necessary there becomes a point at which it becomes an unhelpful and vicious cycle,” study co-author Tracey Wade, PhD, dean of the School of Psychology at Flinders University in Australia explained in a press release. “Knowing that perfectionism of any sort is a risk factor for eating disorders suggests we should tackle 'all or nothing' attitudes with clients, as well as helping them to become less invested in defining their self worth in terms of their ability to achieve high standards."
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It can make you anti-social
Another type of perfectionism is “other-oriented perfectionism,” and it can affect your ability to connect with others. An "other-oriented perfectionist" is what it sounds like: someone who sets ridiculously high standards for others. These people tend to be narcissistic, anti-social, and have a more aggressive sense of humor, compared to people who set high standard for themselves (aka run-of-the-mill perfectionists), according to a recent study in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment.
It's a risk factor for suicide
Finally, and perhaps most alarming of all, the pressure to be perfect may be dangerous to your mental health, according to an analysis published last year in the Review of General Psychology. The study authors argued that not only are perfectionists more likely to die by suicide, but that this risk is also widely underestimated by experts. Even worse: the researchers report that perfectionists who attempt suicide are more likely to succeed because their plans are precisely and thoroughly thought out.