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Perfectionism and Burnout: Address Stress and Find Balance

The word “perfectionist” may bring to mind someone who is the picture of orderliness or cleanliness. Or it might inspire the thought of a bookshelf, alphabetized and organized by genre.

Perfectionism is simply the need to be (or appear) perfect. Different forms of perfectionism can have both positive and negative effects. People who are motivated by setting lofty goals may excel in academia or their workplace. But the harmful aspects of perfectionism can lead to depression, low self-esteem, or overwhelm.

When perfectionism becomes overbearing or overwhelming, it can lead to burnout. Burnout is complete mental and physical exhaustion. It often occurs after a prolonged period of stress. Striving for perfection can be highly stressful, and it can trigger burnout.

When Hard Work and High Goals Cause Burnout By GoodTherapy.org Staff

There is nothing wrong with setting goals or having high expectations. But there are a few signs you may be heading into negative, or self-critical, perfectionism. These can include but are not limited to:

  • Difficulty making decisions because “None of the options seem right”
  • Excessive list-making
  • Giving up early or avoiding situations with higher risk of failure
  • Procrastination
  • Repeated checking: in the mirror, for errors in work, or your watch
  • Hoarding
  • Slowness in speech or reading grounded in the need to ensure nothing is missed or messed up

Stress caused by the self-critical behaviours of perfectionism can lead to burnout. You could be experiencing burnout if you feel:

  • Emotionally blunted or numb
  • Constantly overwhelmed
  • That your daily tasks are pointless
  • Underappreciated
  • Depleted of motivation
  • Hopeless or helpless
  • Tired or fatigued most of the time

Why Does Perfectionism Trigger Burnout?

Perfectionism can cause a constant amount of stress in both work and home life. Living in a cycle of stress with no relief may allow a sense of helplessness or despair to take root. Neverending stress can sap motivation and make it seem like there is not point in trying.

By setting impossible to meet standards—perfection—a person cannot accomplish what they expect of themselves. They will never reach this goal, because perfection does not exist. Even if perfection was achieved at a certain point, standards for what is perfect may change over time. For people with harmful perfectionistic tendencies, this thinking can further contribute to a loss purpose and meaning.

Self-critical perfectionism often comes with negative self-talk. Thoughts such as “What is wrong with me?” and “At this rate, I may as well give up” may often run through the mind of someone with perfectionism. A steady flow of harsh inner dialogue can cause emotional exhaustion.

Are Some People Prone to Burnout?

One specific group is not more or less prone to burnout than another. But certain characteristics or mental health issues may make burnout more likely.

For example, people with social anxiety may be more prone to perfectionism. Both conditions can cause fear of being judged by others. The relationship between social anxiety and self-critical perfectionism indicates people with social anxiety may be more likely to burn out.

People with high-stress jobs and professional athletes may also be more susceptible to burnout. Perfectionism in the workplace or on the playing field can make self-compassion or acceptance of failure feel impossible. This may cause them to work or compete harder than is sustainable for long amounts of time.

Thoughts such as “What is wrong with me?” and “At this rate, I may as well give up” may often run through the mind of a person with perfectionism. A steady flow of harsh inner dialogue can cause emotional exhaustion.

Can Burnout Be Avoided?

Many people experience burnout at some point in life. It is possible to prevent it from happening regularly or for extended periods. Management of perfectionistic tendencies is key in preventing someone from reaching a state of burnout.

To help manage perfectionism, you might:

  • Remind yourself to think realistically. Practice repeating “All I can do is my best!” or “Nobody is perfect!” to yourself when you feel overwhelmed.
  • Gather perspective. Look at how you fit into the bigger picture. Consider the broader context of a stressful situation.
  • Compromise. Decide what level of imperfection or perfection you can handle for the moment. Operate within that framework.
  • Speak up. Tell people when you are tired or feeling run down.
  • Manage your time. Avoid procrastinating and becoming overwhelmed. Create schedules with tasks you can complete in a certain number of hours.
  • Take regular breaks from work or activities. Read, take a nap, play with a pet, or spend time with a good friend. Breathe.

Tips for Handling Perfectionism-Induced Burnout

If perfectionism is not managed, a person may reach a point of burnout. It can be harder to bounce back from a state of burnout than from a point of tiredness before it. Due to this, it is important to prevent burnout, if possible. But knowing how to treat and recover from burnout may be necessary for many with perfectionistic traits.

Burnout recovery includes self-care. A few good strategies might be:

  • Socializing. Maintaining positive relationships and spending time with people you feel comfortable around can help reduce stress and overwhelm.
  • Finding balance. Leave a chaotic job, or say no to projects that will overload you. Set a hard stopping time for leaving the office or closing your computer each day.
  • Nourishing your creativity. Write or journal, make art or music, cook, garden, or dance.
  • Taking care of your body. Exercise or stay active, and try to eat whole, healthy foods.
  • Seeing a therapist. Talk therapy can help people cope with feelings of depression or pointlessness during burnout. Speaking with a therapist may help people make a plan for moving forward.

A solid self-care plan can help you work toward a faster pace or bigger project load. It is important to practice self-care and know your limits. You may avoid burnout by being realistic in your expectations and communicating needs and feelings of overwhelm with bosses and co-workers. This may mean turning down a new project or giving up some responsibilities to clear your plate.

You can still accomplish goals and do quality work at a pace that won’t burn you out. Burnout and perfectionism can hinder your ability to do your best. Learning to manage them may serve you better in the future. If things become too much for you to handle on your own, a mental health professional can help you learn skills to manage perfectionistic behaviour.

References:

  1. Benson, E. (2003). The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor on Psychology, 10(34), 18. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.aspx
  2. Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2015, July 31). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3(20), 269-288. Doi: 10.1177/1088868315596286
  3. Fursland, A., Lim, L., Raykos, B., & Steele, A. (2009). What is perfectionism? Retrieved from http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/1%20What%20is%20%20Perfectionism.pdf
  4. How to overcome perfectionism. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.anxietybc.com/sites/default/files/Perfectionism.pdf
  5. Kempke, S., Luvten, P., Claes, S., Goossens, L., Bekaert, P., Van Wambeke, P., & Van Houdenhove, B. (2012, August 30). Self-critical perfectionism and its relationship to fatigue and pain in the daily flow of life in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Psychological Medicine, 5(43), 995-1002. doi: 10.1017/S0033291712001936
  6. Ruggeri, A. (2018, February 21). The dangerous downsides of perfectionism. BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180219-toxic-perfectionism-is-on-the-rise
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