BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Many would agree that it’s healthy to set and attempt to reach goals. This develops our ability to persevere and as we achieve said goals, our self-esteem gets a nice boost. 

But what if a person’s desire to achieve becomes so overwhelming it turns nearly every aspect of life into a report card, and failure is not an option?

Psychology Today defines this sort of outlook as unhealthy perfectionism. 

An article on the topic says, “When healthy, it (perfectionism) can be self-motivating and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success. When unhealthy, it can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness.”

In recent years, healthcare professionals have noted that an increasing number of people are struggling with negative aspects of perfectionism. 

Medical News Today states that, “almost 30 percent of undergraduate students experience symptoms of depression, and perfectionism has been widely associated with these symptoms.” 

So, what are some indicators that a high achiever’s drive to succeed has slipped into an unhealthy form of perfectionism? To answer this, a glimpse into the individual’s home life and work habits may be helpful.  

How unhealthy perfectionism can affect home life

While it’s natural to do all we can to give our families our best, setting unrealistic expectations can have a negative impact on our loved ones. 

According to an article by Dr. Shauna H. Springer in Psychology Today, a perfectionist becomes so focused on meeting high standards that instead of experiencing a full range of balanced emotions, they often vacillate between two feelings: dread and relief. 

This becomes a roller-coaster like pattern of emotional highs and lows that the entire family is forced to ride along with the perfectionist. 

Dr. Springer adds, “Unfortunately, when an individual is caught up in the bondage of perfectionist striving, that person is likely to be less interested in developing a healthy, mutually satisfying marriage and more interested in chasing the elusive rabbit in his or her own head.”

Partners of perfectionist individuals often comment on their partner’s emotional unavailability.

Dr. Shauna H. Springer, Psychology Today

She goes on to say, “Along these lines, partners of perfectionist individuals often comment on their partner’s emotional unavailability. It is very hard for a perfectionist to share his or her internal experience with a partner. Perfectionists often feel that they must always be strong and in control of their emotions.”

Dr. Springer suggests that couples seek out counseling or therapy when perfectionism creates emotional distance that puts their relationship in danger.

The impact on children 

Children can also become stressed when a high-achieving parent expects too much from their offspring. 

While having high standards is a sign of good parenting, perfectionist parenting is unhealthy in that it sets a child up to believe that if they’re not the best, they’re a failure. 

Very Well Family says the following signs may indicate a parent is expecting their child to meet unattainable standards: 

  • You have difficulty watching your child do something if she doesn’t do it your way
  • You find yourself micromanaging your child when she’s working on a task
  • You put pressure on your child to perform flawlessly
  • You criticize your child more than you praise them
  • You push your child to fulfill your dreams
  • You feel that your self-worth hinges on your child’s achievement
  • You treat your child’s activities, like a math test or a soccer game, like they’re life-altering events

The article goes on to say that children of perfectionists may mimic their parent’s fear of failure and go so far as to cheat on their schoolwork or tests to get good grades. 

According to Dr. Thomas Curran and Dr. Andrew P. Hill, both U.K. based doctors who contributed to an article in Medical News Today, when young people take on an unhealthy perfectionistic outlook, it can lead to clinical depression, eating disorders, and in some cases, premature death. 

Finding a balance

But if a parent with the best intentions realizes they’re expecting too much from their children, what can they do to rebuild their child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being?

Very Well Family suggests cutting the child some slack and making a conscious effort to be more positive when speaking with them. 

For example, if a father is reprimanding his son for not making his bed correctly, this may be an opportunity to practice cutting the child some slack and using positive speech.

To accomplish this, the father might take a deep breath, remember that kids are supposed to make mistakes and each mistake is a learning opportunity. Then, use positive language to teach his son lesson. Instead of yelling, he could point out what the boy did right. For one, his son made his bed, which is a good thing. Then, the father might ask him what he can do better next time. 

The article adds, “If you’ve been a perfectionist parent but you’re able to dial it back a bit, don’t sweat it too much—it’s clear you’re working hard to be the best parent you can be. And your willingness to acknowledge your weaknesses, learn from your mistakes, and cut yourself some slack will serve as a good role model for your child.”    

How unhealthy perfectionism can impact work performance

In the workplace, a perfectionist may be the first one in the office, the busiest and most productive worker in the building throughout the day, and the last person to leave at night.

Though their work may be exceptional and constantly praised by both colleagues and superiors, all the perfectionist sees is what they could have done better.   

When this high achieving individual’s harsh inner voice drives them to set unattainable standards, this can lead to extreme stress and a crumbling emotional state.

According to Chron, the domino effect of perfectionism at work can result in the following unhealthy emotions and behaviors:

Undue Stress

When the work the perfectionist has completed fails to meet their standards, they may become overwhelmed by stress, which can lead to headaches, weight loss or gain, insomnia, and depression. Eventually, their once glowing work performance may begin to suffer.

Procrastination

Chron points out that, “An employee can become so overwhelmed by the desire to complete a task or project perfectly that he is incapable of beginning the project in the first place. During brainstorming or planning, a perfectionistic employee may become overly focused on creating a perfect plan, to the point that the actual project itself never gets started.” 

When this occurs, an employee might fall into self-loathing. These deep-seated feelings of ‘not being good enough’ may become intensified when the employee’s perfectionism continues to stop them from starting a project. So, they become trapped in a vicious cycle of self-loathing and procrastination, all of it triggered by unhealthy perfectionism.

Withdrawal from colleagues   

According to Chron, “Perfectionism can easily cause rifts between an employee and her coworkers. Coworkers may feel put off by the constant overachieving of a perfectionistic employee.”

The article adds that, “If a perfectionist is suffering from stress and depression, she may withdraw and lose interest in maintaining close, healthy relationships with her coworkers. Having employees who do not work well together slows down the productivity in a business, making teamwork difficult.”

The trajectory of unhealthy perfectionism might be likened to that of a massive and brightly burning star. It stands out among others as admirable. But over time, the star exhausts its internal fuel and its core begins to collapse. This results in the death of the star and the birth of a black hole.

While that sounds a bit dramatic, it may resonate with someone whose entire life has been upended by an unhealthy and never-ending race to perfection.

For example, Kate Goodrum, a student at Cambridge University shared her story with The Guardian in 2016, stating, “The drive for perfection was always there, but as I got older it took hold in a more negative way and led to an eating disorder. I became very critical of how I looked, to the point where my body mass index got really low and I was told by doctors that I wouldn’t be able to sit my GCSEs if my health didn’t improve.”  

As Goodrum’s personal experience indicates, perfectionism can lead to extreme, and even life-threatening, health conditions.    

Getting help 

Goodrum said that after seeking out treatment for her eating disorder, she was able to improve her health. She adds, “All I’ve experienced has taught me to try to be less harsh on myself. One thing I have learned is that being perfect doesn’t always make you happy.”

But happiness is possible for the high achiever who learns to set balanced and healthy goals.

The road to true success can be found with the help of a reliable therapist or counselor. 

Along those lines, an article from Top Resume says, “It can be tough to look in the mirror and realize you need to make some changes. Perfectionism isn’t an easy way of being to change for many. Counseling or therapy can help you talk through some issues due to it and approaches to help move through it. It can also help you deal with the emotional impact of perfectionism.”  

To find out more about Louisiana’s options for free mental health counseling services, call the Louisiana Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) at (225) 342-9500.