“What’s your biggest weakness?” asked the interviewer.

It was a clichė question, and so was met with a clichė answer: “Perfectionism,” Julie replied, confident this wouldn’t be seen as such a weakness after all. It was an answer that virtually every job interviewer will have heard.

“I’m a perfectionist” is like a not so subtle way of saying “I’m detail oriented and incredibly dedicated to making sure that my work is flawless.” Sounds great, right? Who doesn’t want a weakness like that? Hired!

The strange interview situation aside, let’s take a moment to consider what it means to be a perfectionist.

… And perhaps  honestly evaluate the ways in which this trait can actually be a significant weakness.

No matter how ideal perfectionism might sound for someone with high standards, the reality is that it can be crippling, even a precursor to mental illness. Studies have found that perfectionism seems to be on the increase, particularly among younger workers, and frankly is something that should cause concern for us as leaders, employers and parents.

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Defining perfectionism

It might be helpful to begin with what perfectionism isn’t. People commonly conflate perfectionism with having high standards, attention to detail, and a commitment to excellence.

It is entirely possible to have high standards without being termed a “perfectionist.” Among entrepreneurs, being committed to excellence is what helps us build successful companies, to go that extra step where others might not venture.

The word “perfectionism” is overused and often misunderstood. From my perspective as a clinical psychologist, perfectionism in its true sense implies a crippling rigidity.

True perfectionism tends to be rooted in a fear of failure, which can lead to a host of other problems. It’s also often about a need to be accepted, as if people won’t care for the person if they are less than perfect. For Julie, the job interviewee, perfectionism could see her procrastinating over getting started on projects, as all possible ways she could mess them up flashed through her mind.

I mean, “perfect” is an impossibility, isn’t it?

True perfectionism is “maladaptive”, meaning that the person struggles to appropriately adjust to the environment or situation. A perfectionist will remain rigidly adhering to a standard they’ve set for themselves, even if the context or situation has changed, or that standard has surpassed “aiming high” to reach “virtually impossible.”

Perfectionism tends to be rooted in a fear of failure. It can be a crippling clinical condition. Click To Tweet

The Good

To be clear, I wouldn’t call “true perfectionism” a strength. However, striving for quality and aiming for excellence are strengths.

As entrepreneurs, I’d consider those to be essential traits. Quality means a solid, scalable business and an edge over competitors. It means upholding high standards and having high expectations of yourself and your team.

Those are absolutely good business aims, but if rigidity and angst begin to creep in, it is a warning sign that you’re moving too close to those perfectionist tendencies. When the new product doesn’t ship on time because you’re hung up on  minutiae, it’s time to pause and examine what’s really going on.

As a founder, you’re going to interview Julies for your team. They can be great assets, but someone with true perfectionist tendencies will need to be managed carefully.


The Bad

In a recent meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin, researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill found that perfectionism is increasing over time. Rates of perfectionism among undergraduate students in the US, Canada and UK were analyzed from 1989 to 2016. They found that today’s college students were more likely than cohorts from previous generations to report perfectionism.

It’s not just that perfectionism is on the increase, but that people are facing what Curran and Hill termed as “multidimensional perfectionism,” meaning that people feel pressured to meet increasingly high standards across a widening range of metrics.

The study also linked this with a marked increase in cases of mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders among people in their twenties. Perfectionism is seeing people become sicker and sadder.

Among study participants, it was common that they felt the need to “measure up” to peers, while at the same time, they were harsh critics themselves.

Social media undeniably plays a role – it has now been pervasive for over a decade and, as we all know, tends to feature people’s highlight reels, rather than the less-glossy reality. It’s all part of that “multidimensional” factor that the study unearthed, and has even lead to people within the industry restricting their own use.

The Ugly

“Public health issue” and “epidemic” are increasingly terms used to describe the growing trend of perfectionism. The problem is that perfectionism isn’t helping people to reach those high standards they aspire to. Perfection is a filtered way of seeing yourself and the world and leaves people feeling lonely, worthless, unable to perform. It can compromise both your mental and physical health.

Among the long list of clinical issues associated with perfectionism: depression and anxiety, self-harm, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, hoarding, dyspepsia, chronic headaches, and, sadly, early mortality and suicide.

Some studies suggest that the higher your levels of perfectionism, the more psychological disorders you’re likely to suffer.

Perfectionism isn’t some “strength disguised as a weakness,” it’s a problematic perspective that can have serious implications. In a work context, perfectionists might find it difficult to get started, to finish, or to meet deadlines. They might tie themselves in knots second-guessing every decision they make, beat themselves up for days over any perceived “mistake,” and ultimately, find it difficult to reach their performance potential.

Another issue is the impact that perfectionists can have on the people around them. When your own standards are so high that you’re never good enough, what does that mean for others? Researchers have found that the kids of perfectionist parents often feel that there’s no way they can live up to the standards of their parents. Kids pick up even the most subtle cue – they can feel inadequate without you saying a word.


Managing perfectionism

First, for anyone who really struggles with perfectionism, it is a very good idea to seek professional help from a qualified mental health professional. The implications for mental health can be very serious, so treat perfectionism seriously!

If there’s someone close to you who struggles with this, support their efforts toward getting help.”I’m worried about you” or “It seems like you’re being very hard on yourself” can be helpful phrases to get the conversation going.

An HBR article outlined several key steps that managers of perfectionists can take to help harness the best from them. Importantly, managers can help to boost the self-awareness of the perfectionist, give feedback in a way that is useful, and ensure that they have the right jobs to do.

A Psychology Today article lists various techniques that a perfectionist can follow to try to overcome perfectionism, or fear of failure. For example, instead of focusing on what you’re worried about failing, can you shift your frame of mind to focus on what you enjoy about the task?

Other techniques that are proven to benefit mental health include meditation and getting a healthy amount of exercise. (Note: “healthy amount of exercise” is key, there are plenty of people out there for whom perfectionism creeps into their workouts as well!).

3 techniques for healthy perfectionists. Download here

Final thoughts

Perfectionism is something that people have viewed as a secret strength. But it isn’t. True perfectionism can be painful and debilitating.

Leading researchers on this topic have shown that perfectionism is on the rise and true perfectionism is a clinical condition that can be crippling for the affected person. Perfectionism can lead to or be a part of a range of other mental health conditions, and can hold people back, rather than seeing them achieve to their potential.

There’s a big difference between upholding high standards and perfectionism. One is prepared to strive for excellence, but acknowledge that doing so can require some flexibility, while the other tends to be much more rigid in approach.

If you struggle with perfectionism, it’s okay to seek help and take steps to curb it. Your overall health and well-being may count on it.