9 ways that perfectionism can lead to burnout

9 ways that perfectionism can lead to burnout

First of all, let’s clear up a really common misunderstanding: that perfectionism is a healthy mindset that leads to perfect results, perfect achievements, a perfect life etc.

The truth is somewhat different: perfectionism is the stress we feel in order to be perceived as perfect by others or ourselves and the exhaustive effort we put in, in order to deal with that stress. In other words, perfectionism makes us feel like we are not enough and we need to try more in order to become so. 

Perfectionism leads to burnout

The negative consequences of perfectionism are plenty, but we will focus on one of the most common ones: burnout. Our mental well-being is at stake because perfectionism can become a pervasive way of thinking that inevitably affects our relationships with others, our relationship with ourselves, our growth, our happiness and our inner peace. So, how is perfectionism related to burnout?

Looking for trouble

Being a perfectionist means that you want to prevent your project (also: your relationship, your work, your reputation) from “going south”. In order to do so, you are trying to predict all the worst cases scenarios and be prepared for them. As you can understand, this means that your mental antennas are constantly scanning the world around you in order to find trouble.

This kind of negative thinking stays with you, becomes your way of living. You are only thinking of what could go wrong and overlooking what is going right. We are not wired to only look at the negative side of life. Sooner or later, this one-sided negative way of thinking leads to anxiety, depression, burnout and fatigue.

All by myself

A perfectionist has somehow learned that in order to prove they have done a good job, they need to do it all by themselves. If they ask for help and they get it, this means that they have compromised their effort, and this is a declaration of weakness.

Behind this decision, there is a strong all-or-nothing mindset: “Either I can do it all by myself or I can’t do it at all”. They want to be seen as strong, self-reliant and confident, and that leaves them struggling on their own for a long time. Moreover, they want to take the full credit of whatever they are putting effort on, so that’s another reason they don’t ask for help.

The grass is greener

Another strong factor that leads a perfectionist into burnout is comparison. As we said in the beginning, a perfectionist is trying to be (seen as) the best. That means that they need to be aware of how the competition is doing all the time. They are always checking what the other colleague did, what the other mom did, what the other partner did, in order to counter-respond with something better and more impressive.

This is exhausting though, as you can understand, because there will always be someone who has done something more or in a better way and chasing after this is just a bottomless pit.

Raising the bar

A perfectionist will always be oriented towards growth and increasing their potential. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is a thin line between growing and being restless. Most of the time, perfectionists set a new goal for themselves before they complete the current one. However, there is an overlap between the old and new goals, making it really hard for them to see what they have achieved already,

What is also interesting is that when a perfectionist completes a goal and they are congratulated for that, they almost always respond with a deflating answer, such as “It was not that great” or “That was just basic for me”, and that happens because they have already raised the bar for themselves. Can you imagine how easy it is to burn out because of this strategy?

No break for me

A perfectionist rarely takes a break. It may seem sometimes that they are on a break, doing other activities, but this is not a real break. This is just procrastination: they have been struggling with a difficult task or role, and therefore they are now distracting themselves with something else while holding a lot of guilt inside them and feeling bad about not doing what they are supposed to.

A perfectionist doesn’t see the value in self-care, and therefore they don’t create time for themselves and for the activities they like. Not having a break, though, from such an exhausting and demanding agenda is not sustainable. A healthy mind cannot exist without a respectful number of breaks, rest and pleasant activities. Our system will protest sooner or later, one way or another.

It’s all about the achievement

A perfectionist is strongly oriented towards achievements, accomplishments, results and visible growth. What’s wrong with that? Well, on one hand this is what we all want. To grow and develop. On the other hand, a perfectionist cannot enjoy the space in between or towards the achievements.

A perfectionist manager working on a project will only be satisfied when they achieve the desired result, despite several wins and the team working really well. A perfectionist who is learning how to draw will not be happy and relaxed while drawing unless the ending result will be a painting worthy of being hung in an art gallery.

Not enjoying the process and not rewarding ourselves for the things we learn and not just for the things we achieve can lead to burnout, as we will inevitably be disappointed with ourselves too often.

Work-life balance: 1-0

A perfectionist is, as we said above, task- and result-oriented. That means that many perfectionists among us can also be recognised as workaholics. They work long hours, they talk only about work, they meet people only if they are related to work, they think about work even when they are with friends and family. In short, it’s all about work-work-work.

However, putting personal life aside doesn’t help with our mental balance. There is no time to decompress, to socialise, to let go of stressful thoughts, to build relationships, to see the big picture. Now, if one has nothing to hang on to in their personal life (because no time was devoted to that) and at the same time, there is a setback at work (the work that they have put so much effort into), can you imagine how stressful and shattering that scenario may be?

No celebration

A perfectionist doesn’t celebrate the victorious moments in their life. If you ask them about their successes, they would say that they were happy but they didn’t “do anything special about it”. They are also not very comfortable with compliments. In fact, they often try to turn the attention to someone else: “It was because of my wife / husband that I finished my course successfully”.

Now, if a perfectionist spends so much time working on a project and at the same time they have no time for the reward, the celebration, the praise, the validation, the acknowledgement, how do they find the motivation to continue? Sooner or later, they will be depleted of their drive, their passion and their motivation. A.K.A. burnout.

Low self-confidence

Taking into consideration all the above, we perhaps understand a little bit more about the psychology of a perfectionist: a person who stresses how others see them and how they compare to others, someone who ruminates over negative possible scenarios, who raises the expectations for themselves all the time, who beats themselves up all the time, who doesn’t give themself a pat on the back, who constantly doubts and questions their own worth.

As a result, as you can imagine, their self-confidence is really low (even though they are projecting a powerful and confident image to others) and they are definitely yearning for acceptance.

Perfectionism doesn’t lead to perfection, it leads to burnout

The sooner we notice all these micro-behaviours and the negative thoughts that start creeping into our lives, the better protected we will become in order to avoid burnout, anxiety or depression, or other symptoms such as sleeping or health problems associated with stress that have been accumulated for a long time.

Our suggestion: Start changing some of the old (unhealthy) habits, connect with the people around you, spare yourself some "me time", try mindfulness, connect with nature, talk to a therapist, talk to a friend, and recalibrate your life for more inner peace and balance.

Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? Let us know in the comment section below!

Vassia  Sarantopoulou


Vassia Sarantopoulou

Vassia Sarantopoulou is a Counselor-Psychotherapist with more than 15 years of experience, the Head Psychologist and founder of AntiLoneliness. AntiLoneliness offers individual and couples counseling, workshops and support groups, in...

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