Is perfectionism a good thing?

Some professionals would argue yes, what could possibly be bad about holding yourself and others to the highest standards? Others, however, would offer a firm no and point to studies showing perfectionism can lead to a paralyzing and procrastination-inducing fear of failure. If your aspirations are so high you can never possibly meet them, that can't possibly be good for your productivity and mental health, this camp argues.

So who's right?

New research offers a surprising answer — maybe both are. The meta-analysis of 43 previous studies on perfectionism was carried out by a team led by Andrew Hill, professor at York St. John University in England. The study looked specifically at the link between perfectionism and burnout (spoiler: there is one), but while the ability of perfectionistic tendencies to pile on the stress is interesting if not entirely surprising, another aspect of the findings is more intriguing.

The bad kind of perfectionism...

According to Hill and his team there are actually two types of perfectionism — one good and one very bad indeed. The difference between the two comes down to whether a perfectionists' standards for herself are just high or impossibly high. If you're setting yourself up for continual failure by setting the bar so high no human could ever really clear it, then that amounts to the wrong kind of perfectionism.

Bad perfectionism is “when people constantly worry about making mistakes, letting others down, or not measuring up to their own impossibly high standards,” according to the research release. The consequences of this incessant sense of failure and worry are grim. Being this sort of perfectionist “can contribute to serious health problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, fatigue and even early mortality.” Or in other words, you can stress yourself into an early grave. Oh, and besides premature death, it also causes burnout at work.

... and the good.

But while this sort of bad perfectionism seems downright scary, there is another type of perfectionism that isn't bad at all. If instead of constantly failing to meet your own expectations and perpetually fretting about it, you merely insist on giving your best, that's nothing to worry about, according to Hill and his fellow researchers. In fact, it's probably a professional positive.

This aspect of perfectionism “involves the setting of high personal standards and working toward those goals in a pro-active manner. These efforts may help maintain a sense of accomplishment and delay the debilitating effects of burnout,” the study found.

So if you suspect you have perfectionistic tendencies, it might be time for some serious soul-searching. If upon reflection you recognize yourself more in the description of “good” perfectionism, carry on. But if, on the other hand, you have to admit that the “bad” perfectionism sound more familiar, this research strongly suggests you should think about getting your impossible-to-please tendencies under control.

So which are you — the good type or the bad?

Published on: Aug 13, 2015