10 signs that your employees may be struggling with toxic perfectionism


 September 13, 2021


As many staff begin yet another life transition this month – the physical return to the office – supporting mental health will once again need to be at the top of the HR and manager agenda.  Thankfully, Harriet Waley-Cohen, our Panel of Expert member and facilitator of our webinar ‘Progress not Perfection’; is on hand to help us spot the warning signs….

‘I’m a perfectionist’ used to be the clever interview answer to give when asked about your greatest weakness. But is being a perfectionist actually ever a good thing? While it might underpin desirable traits such as being hard working, reliable, and having high standards with great attention to detail, perfectionism also has major downsides. Research has linked it to anxiety, depression and eating disorders, along with higher blood pressure and stress levels.

How can you tell if perfectionism is failing to propel you to greater success, and is actually holding you back instead? Watch out for these 10 signs of toxic perfectionism, and make a note of which ones you identify with as you go along.

  1. A underlying sense of low self-worth. If your perfectionism is driven by secret self-doubt, imposter syndrome or a general feeling of not being good enough, then it’s unlikely that anything you ever achieve, no matter how fabulous, will give you confidence for more than a nano second. I don’t think that everyone with low self-worth is a perfectionist, but perfectionism is usually by driven by the search for a solution to  feelings of inadequacy.
  2. Validation desperation. If your main reason for striving for perfection is to win praise, compliments, or awards, it’s not a strategy that will help you feel better about yourself long-term. Yesterday’s pat on the back will not make you feel good about yourself today. Unfortunately the worries about your value will rear their head again quickly, and you’ll constantly need more validation just to feel on an even keel. This is not a game you can win, because the arrival of the compliments is out of your control as it is completely reliant on the actions of others. The minute praises stops arriving or you don’t get it when you thought you would, you’re back at square one, aka questioning your worth.
  3. Exhaustion. Perfectionism can be totally incompatible with self-care. Pushing yourself to achieve at ever higher levels may actually be driving you head long towards extreme tiredness or even burnout, a physical and/or mental breakdown. You often feel like you might fall apart at any moment and are hanging on by a thread most of the time. Success without wellbeing is not success, and success that comes with a total mental or physical collapse will not make you stand out as a superstar either, quite the opposite.
  4. Caffeine and sugar overload. To keep achieving and pushing yourself hard, you have to push on past tiredness and your body’s signs to stop. Enter stage left your great friends caffeine and sugar, which give you just enough lift to keep going. Except the caffeine is making you jittery, anxious, and messing with your sleep; the sugar is messing with your energy, clarity of mind and ability to have the perfect body. Both are sources of shame – why can’t you keep going without them, no one else seems to need this much stimulation to perform? You might notice that a drink or 3 in the evening has become your only way to wind down, which adds even more trouble to the situation longer term.
  5. Relationship strain. When no one else is trying as hard or giving as much as you are, and you’re close to burnout, you’ll fail to appreciate everyone else’s contribution and there will be zero room for error on anyone else’s part. The hard time you give yourself in your head will also be given to everyone else.  You’ll be snappy and no positives will be acknowledged, only negatives. Even at home, there is often no wriggle room for mistakes – how hard can it be to load the dishwasher just right, is your partner an idiot or what??? Intimacy, compassion and empathy will be sorely lacking, which will damage your relationships in all spheres.
  6. Inner critic in overdrive. If you have a voice in your head that constantly criticises your every move, making you obsess over every small mistake (even the imaginary ones), then your perfectionism is quite likely to be messing with your peace of mind and overall emotional wellbeing. This is a painful, exhausting way to live, as everything you do involves an internal battle before you can act. Everything you do or say gets analysed, and it can even be hard to sleep because you keep turning things over in your mind and beating yourself up – why didn’t you word that email better or think of that sassy comeback at the time?
  7. Achievements feel hollow or meaningless. No matter what you achieve, you don’t stop to celebrate or give yourself a pat on the back. You might even brush off what a big deal it was for you or what it took to get there, and swiftly move onto point 8 because…more more more is always better, right?!
  8. Ever higher goal setting. Nothing is ever enough. No matter what you achieve, there is always another level you could get to. Never mind breaking your personal best for your 5k time, let’s see if we can shave another 5 seconds off next time. Smashed your sales target? Let’s double it for laughs! But this isn’t funny, at all. It’s impossible for anything you achieve to ever feel good enough or make you feel great about yourself long-term.
  9. Procrastination and self-sabotage. Being a perfectionist means there’s always a bit more research you can do before writing that paper, your website could be tweaked before you launch, and your bod could do with another month of working out before you’re toned enough to start dating. Needing things to be perfect can act as a massive break on ever getting started or stopping yourself from progressing. Not exactly your ticket to success, is it?
  10. Lack of life balance. Perfectionism is incompatible with life balance, because you have to keep achieving and improving. There’s not space for relaxation, fun or hobbies. Everything you do has to have a serious purpose to it or it feels like a waste of precious time that you could have spent on improving. You might notice your nearest and dearest complaining that you’re no fun anymore or never have time for them, because you’re always working/insert the thing you always need to achieve at. Life balance is nowhere to be seen, instead you have a horrible mix of anxiety, exhaustion and lack of fulfilment.

How many of these apply to you if you’re honest with yourself? Reading this might have been a wake-up call for you, highlighting that perfectionism damaging your health, happiness and relationships. If 3 of more of the points hit home, then it might well be time to take action to preserve your wellbeing before things deteriorate even further out of control.

If you’d like know how to break free from toxic perfectionism, secret self-doubt and overwhelm, and you’d love to explore the possibility of creating a life filled with more confidence, wellbeing and true success, get in touch with us about Harriet’s 1-hour webinar, Progress not Perfection.

Connect with Harriet on Instagram: @selflove_and_sass, or in her free FB group, Harriet’s Inner Circle


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