Being a perfectionist can be a mixed blessing. Although having high standards is generally a positive trait, as with everything, too much of a good thing can become problematic. When it comes to perfectionism, if it is not channeled appropriately, it can lead to burnout and feelings of failure and self-doubt.
“Perfectionism can lead you to be more ambitious and motivated to excel,” Melody Wilding, a licensed master social worker and author of the book Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work, told Lifehacker. “But in the longterm, the effects of perfectionism can be damaging. Longer hours mean workaholism, which can turn into burnout. While you may strive to be the best version of yourself, many perfectionists feel crippled by feelings of failure and self-doubt.”
So how can you walk the narrow line of always doing your best, without experiencing some of the more detrimental effects?
According to Wilding, it is possible to channel the good parts of being a perfectionist in a way that can help you in the longterm. As she wrote in a recent Psychology Today article, “[R]esearch suggests that there are different types of perfectionism, some of which can actually support success and propel your career.”
The three types of perfectionists
According to the clinical psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, who have spent decades studying perfectionism, there are three types of perfectionists, which can be differentiated according to their 45-item multidimensional perfectionism scale: socially prescribed perfectionists, other-oriented perfectionists, and self-oriented perfectionists.
Socially-prescribed perfectionists feel pressure to live up to the expectations of others, fearing they may be rejected otherwise. Other-oriented perfectionists expect perfection from others, which can lead to criticism and judgment. Self-oriented perfectionists set high standards and expectations for themselves.
Of the three types of perfectionists, self-oriented perfectionists tend to have a healthier relationship with their perfectionist tendencies, which includes higher levels of positive emotions and motivation. However, it can be a tough line to walk, which means it is important to develop healthy coping strategies.
How to channel your perfectionism productively
According to Wilding, in order to channel your perfectionism productively, it’s important to shift to “healthy striving.” As she wrote, healthy striving is the “emerging middle ground between high performance and damaging overachievement.” This is a way to channel the high standards and expectations of being a perfectionist, without experiencing the negatives of burnout, self-doubt, or fear of failure.
Her advice for channeling healthy striving is to confront your fears in order to move past them; to enjoy the process of growth, rather than fixating on the outcome; to set realistic goals that can be adjusted when needed; and to let go of the idea that you can “do it all,” instead delegating tasks when needed.
“Ditch the all-or-nothing mindset,” Wilding said. “For example, perfectionism can lead you to believe that if you don’t give 100% to a task, that it will be a failure. Challenge this by exploring the worst-case scenario — what is the worst that could actually happen, and how would you navigate it if it did?”
Doing this can offer a more balanced perspective, which can be especially necessary when confronting failures. “For perfectionists, failure can lead to self-criticism,” Wilding said. “Identifying your negative inner dialogue and separating yourself from it can give you space to look at the situation in a healthier way.”