How to avoid perfectionism leading to burnout

perfectionistPerfectionism has a well known dark side to it, with stress and burn-out traditional bed fellows of the perfectionist.  A recent study suggests the key to avoiding such an outcome may be all down to how we respond to failure.

The study, which was published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, analyzed over 40 previous studies conducted into perfectionism over the last 20 years.

The analysis uncovered a mixed bag.  On one hand, perfectionistic strivings are often beneficial in that they encourage us to set high standards and work towards those goals in a pro-active way.

Where things go wrong is when people veer into what’s known as ‘perfectionistic concerns’.  This is when failure is paired up with extreme levels of self-criticism, with each wrong step taken very personally, and it’s usually this that leads to burn-out and stress.

“You can fail as many times as you like, as long as you don’t feel like that reflects on your self-worth,” the authors say.

Three symptoms of burnout

The analysis revealed that burnout typically comes with three symptoms:

  1. physical and emotional exhaustion
  2. detachment or cynicism around your work
  3. the feeling that you’re not reaching your goals

Initial studies into burnout have linked it with depression, which gives us an indication of how serious a problem it can be, and with perfectionism said to affect most of us in one way or another, it’s something we can all cope better with.

How to manage perfectionism

The key, the authors suggest, is to continue setting high goals for yourself, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve them for whatever reason.  Of course, the very essence of perfectionism makes that easier said than done, but given the numerous risks involved with the trait, it’s an effort that is well worth making.

The authors cite role models such as Roger Federer and Michael Jordan as examples of people who have managed to take failure in their stride, whilst still maintaining perfectionist tendencies.

The key may be to set goals that have a degree of flexibility built into them.  It emerged that perfectionists can often be very rigid, with goals set extremely highly and failure resulting in bowing out very early on.

If you can think of achievements in degrees rather than absolute success/failure can help to significantly reduce the kind of stresses that lead to burnout.

It’s reminiscent of the work of Stanford’s Carol Dweck around mindset, that I’ve covered a number of times on the blog before.  Those with a growth mindset tend to regard failure as a chance to learn rather than a reflection on themselves.

Thankfully, those studies have also suggested that mindset is something we can change and develop, so perhaps the key is for perfectionists to adopt the growth mindset so that they don’t fall onto the path to burnout.



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