The Paradox of Perfectionism

IMAGE Striving for perfection can be hard on the body and the spirit. Instead, learn to work within your limitations and remember that the people around you are only human. Two people in an office are assigned the same project and the same deadline. Joe does his best and leaves at 5.30 PM, whistling. Jane, on the other hand, rewrites, starts again, checks her work endlessly, and finally leaves the office at 9:00 PM., unhappy with her final product. The difference? Joe is a flexible thinker and Jane is a perfectionist. Perfectionism is an increasing problem in both the workplace and at home, says Professor Stephen Palmer of the Centre for Stress Management in London, England. "Most of the clients I see for occupational stress and burnout are perfectionists."

Good Intentions, Poor Results

There is nothing wrong with striving to do the best you can. The key is in knowing your limitations.The flexible person says, "I will aim for perfection and give it my all, but if it is not perfect, so be it." The perfectionist strives for 110%, and says, "I must perform well, and if I do not, I am a failure." When perfection eludes him, he starts to feel like a failure. The irony is that the time and energy put into doing the perfect job is likely to exhaust him to the point of burn out and results in a job that is poorly done.

An Unhealthy Habit

In his book, When Perfect Isn't Good Enough, McMaster University psychologist Dr. Martin Antony says that some people are perfectionists only at work, in sport, or in relationships. Other people strive to be perfect in every area of life, with potentially fatal results. A study by Dr. Sidney Blatt of Yale University has linked perfectionism with a high risk of depression and suicide. "The idea is that perfectionism is linked to self-criticism," explains Blatt. You are not likely to die in the pursuit of perfection, but a constant cycle of striving, failure, and self-criticism does create stress, which floods the blood with hormones like epinephrine and cortisol. Both have been proven to impair your immune system, making you more vulnerable to everything from the flu to cancer. Perfectionists can expect others to be perfect, too, leading to arguments, broken relationships, and more stress.

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