Dr. Thomas Curran is a social psychologist and Professor in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is an award-winning researcher, with work featured on the BBC, CNN, New York Times and Washington Post, and whose TED talk has been viewed over 3 million times. Here we discuss what perfectionism is, how it impacts our health and our performance, and how we can overcome perfectionism in our daily lives at work. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
How can we define perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a multi-dimensional personality trait, meaning it follows us around wherever we go and impacts on our thoughts and feelings and behaviours in every sphere of life. It’s that incredibly high level of striving for excellence and flawlessness, and it comes in combination with some cognitive and emotional baggage that is mainly wrapped up in high levels of self-criticism when we don’t meet those high and excessive standards. We have three main components of perfectionism – self oriented, socially prescribed and other-oriented.
Is there a difference between having just high standards, and believing that we need to produce high quality work, resulting in perfectionism?
Perfectionists usually have high standards, but not because of goals. Perfectionism comes from a very deficit kind of mindset, whereby we truly believe that we’re imperfect. So we move through the world concealing, hiding and repairing those flaws so that other people don’t see them. We’re going to try to be perfect because we want to win approval from others, and prove we aren’t flawed.
What is the relationship between perfectionism and our health?
One of the things that we’ve been doing in our lab is trying to understand what’s going on at a societal level when it comes to perfectionism. We have this kind of cultural sense that perfectionism is a useful trait. If we’re not perfectionistic, if we don’t push ourselves to the nth degree, then we’re not going to get on. It’s that kind of conventional wisdom that conceals from us the thing that’s actually causing us a great deal of stress and strain. Consequently, one of the things we’re seeing is the rise of anxiety, depression, and low mood, particularly among young people.
Is that what the data shows in terms of the link between mental health conditions and people who score highly on perfectionism?
Absolutely right. Perfectionistic tendencies have a strong positive correlation with mental health difficulties. They’re very stress-reactive to setbacks and failure. They tend to be socially disconnected, so relational problems arise because they have an overwhelming fear of rejection. Other people’s validation is so central to our sense of wellbeing because we believe we’re flawed. If that belief is reinforced by other people, it has a massive impact on our mental health. There are relational difficulties and there’s a self-defeating, self-handicapping tendency among perfectionists whereby they set themselves up for failure. Perfectionism is strongly positively correlated with things like depression, anxiety, and negative mood.
There might be a common belief that perfectionism in the workplace is a real strength. What is the relationship between perfectionism and performance?
Perfectionism actually can have some very small benefits. For anything that requires time on task, there seems to be some benefits of perfectionism. When you move that into the work domain, the effective performance disappears.
What are some of the behaviours that you see play out around failure and stress reactivity?
This all goes back to that definition of deficit thinking and therefore I have to prove to other people that I’m perfect. You tend to find that perfectionists are highly reactive when they encounter these inevitable setbacks. People high on perfectionism experience shame and a complete plummet in their levels of pride after stressful events relative to people who are
non-perfectionistic. Because failure elicits so much self related, self-conscious emotions and a sense that I’m not good enough, that actually this sense that “I’m not good” had just been validated. If they experience the situation again, their effort just plummets. It’s a self-protective mechanism, because they don’t want to feel that guilt and shame and a negative self-conscious emotion. This is why we tend to see this paradox, and then that spreads into all sorts of other self handicapping activities. Procrastination is a key one. Perfectionists procrastinate all the time, particularly when the stakes are really high. What they are really doing is postponing that emotional reaction to later.
What practical advice can you provide to help us manage perfectionism particularly in the workplace, whilst also maintaining high standards?
You really have to get comfortable with not doing things 100% and just being average now and again. That is harder than it sounds and there’s no quick-fix life hack that I can give you, but what I can say is that small steps matter. Take small steps out of your comfort zone and just sit with the anxiety of it. The more you do that, and the easier it becomes, the more you will break through this perfectionistic tendency to always doubt yourself and always worry about the consequences of not doing something 100%.
Being average also frees up more time for you to take care of these other areas of your life, which might inadvertently heighten your performance overall as well.
Going home at five o’clock is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and just allowing that to be okay. Then using that time to do things that enrich your life in other ways. Go out into nature, spend time with friends, these things are invigorating experiences that will ultimately help our work performance not hinder.
Would your advice differ depending on whether you have more of the self-oriented or socially prescribed elements of perfectionism?
Both of them are relational. Nothing happens in a vacuum. If you’re higher on self oriented perfectionism, there’s very rigid behaviours that are linked to that. Both have slightly different
triggers and both will have slightly different ways of managing. If you have high in one you have high in another – they tend to bleed into each other.
If you’re a manager and you’re managing someone who is a perfectionist, are there things you can do to support them to thrive better in their role?
As more and more recent generations come into the work, you’re going to see more and more perfectionism. Safety is really important. Not just in a social sense but in a sense that it’s okay for me to ask a stupid question for instance. Create that environment where when things go wrong, which they will, that people feel like it’s okay.
What about if your manager is a perfectionist?
If your manager is a perfectionist, the first thing is to recognize that this is their problem, not yours. Perfectionism is a really funny trait because people impose perfectionistic tendencies on other people because they feel a sense of imperfection in themselves. You need to create a distance between you and the person projecting those standards. Secondly, try to move on. Maybe look for another job.
Is there a place for tools and practices like mindfulness and breathwork to support us with perfectionism?
Mindfulness is one thing that people should try. Self-compassion is so important. It’s basically accepting that everyone’s imperfect. That’s the starting point of a self-compassionate mindset. From there, we can start to meet challenges with the same self compassion that we would give to other people when they meet challengs.
What was a stressful time in your lifetime Dr. Curran, and what tool or practice helped you through?
Around my mid-20s. I was in Australia doing a postdoc in a very competitive university. It was only when I actually stopped trying as hard that I actually started to realise that I wasn’t any less
productive, but I was so much happier. The realisation that slowing down can actually speed us up was for me,quite a profound realisation.
What are three take-aways from your work?
1. Perfection is not high expectations, it’s not high goals, it’s much deeper than that. It comes from a deficit place where we don’t feel good enough and everything we do is to disguise and repair those imperfections.
2. Perfectionism doesn’t equal high performance. It actually has a negligible link to performance, that ranges from very small to nonexistent depending on the type of task. 3. Perfectionism is anti-progress, it’s anti-resilience, all of these things that are really important in the workplace. Perfectionism is antithetical, is almost the opposite of.