Perfectionism is something we speak of approvingly – it is the weakness it is ok to confess to in interviews – but an excellent article by Melissa Dahl for New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog explains it can actually be a ruinous pathology:
Still, there’s a distinction between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence, Greenspon said. Perfectionism is more than pushing yourself to do your best to achieve a goal; it’s a reflection of an inner self mired in anxiety. “Perfectionistic people typically believe that they can never be good enough, that mistakes are signs of personal flaws, and that the only route to acceptability as a person is to be perfect,” he said. Because the one thing these people are decidedly not-perfect at, research shows, is self-compassion.
And as Dahl explains it can even be fatal:
In one 2007 study, researchers conducted interviews with the friends and family members of people who had recently killed themselves. Without prompting, more than half of the deceased were described as “perfectionists” by their loved ones. Similarly, in a British study of students who committed suicide, 11 out of the 20 students who’d died were described by those who knew them as being afraid of failure. In another study, published last year, more than 70 percent of 33 boys and young men who had killed themselves were said by their parents to have placed “exceedingly high” demands and expectations on themselves — traits associated with perfectionism.
It doesn’t take much imagination to explain what might drive a perfectionist to self-harm. The all-or-nothing, impossibly high standards perfectionists set for themselves often mean that they’re not happy even when they’ve achieved success. Andresearch has suggested that anxiety over making mistakes may ultimately be holding some perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place. “Wouldn’t it be good if your surgeon, or your lawyer or financial advisor, is a perfectionist?” said Thomas S. Greenspon, a psychologist and author of a recent paper on an “antidote to perfectionism,” published in Psychology in the Schools. “Actually, no. Research confirms that the most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way,” he continued. “Waiting for the surgeon to be absolutely sure the correct decision is being made could allow me to bleed to death.”