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Why Perfectionism Causes Burnout

High standards aren’t a bad thing.  Excellence is a virtue.  However, when we move from high standards and delivering excellence to a sense of perfectionism, we put ourselves at greater risk for burnout.  Understanding why that is requires a quick review of what burnout is and its drivers.

What is Burnout?

Burnout has been defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Here, inefficacy is key.  Our belief that we can’t be effective – or effective enough – is our belief in our personal agency.  Our personal agency is filled by the results we get – and recognize – the support we receive from others, and the self-care we do.  Our personal agency is drained by the demands that are placed on us – largely by ourselves.

Viewed differently, burnout happens when we believe we’re ineffective, because our expectations of our results and the results we’re perceiving are too far apart when we evaluate them.  We can work for some time without results and be ok, expecting those results will come in the future.  But a defining moment will come along, and we’ll evaluate our progress and discover that our expectations and results are out of alignment.

Expectations of Perfection

To believe that we’re capable of perfection is a fundamental distortion of what it’s like to be human.  None of us is perfect, and to expect perfection is therefore unrealistic.  However, perfectionists hold this expectation.  Instead of being disappointed when things aren’t perfect, perfectionists see a personal fault.  Instead of looking at the gap as an opportunity to learn, they see it as a personal failing.

No matter how good the results are, they’re not going to be good enough over time.  No baseball player hits a home run every time.  In fact, even professional baseball players only hit one in three pitches that are thrown to them.  If that’s good enough for professionals, why do we have to be perfect?

Our Demands

One of the common things with all humans, not just perfectionists, is that the demands we place on ourselves are greater than the demands other people place on us.  We don’t just expect that we need to bring cookies to work or school.  We expect that we need to make grandma’s super-secret recipe for cookies.  We must demonstrate not just that we’re willing to participate but that we’re the best cook since our grandma.

That’s fine if your goal in life is to be the best cookie chef – but most of us have other areas of our lives where we’re making investments.  Constantly failing our own internal expectations of our capabilities is demoralizing and may land us in burnout.

Recognizing Reality

The best thing that you can do if you struggle with perfectionist tendencies (which we all do at some level) is to continue to ground yourself in reality.  When you make a mistake, you could say the trite, “I’m only human,” or you could focus on what you can do to prevent the mistake next time without the judgement and disappointment.  Instead of wondering how you could have made such a simple or stupid mistake, you could recognize all the times you’re not making mistakes.

The greater acceptance we have for a lack of perfection in ourselves and in others, the greater chance we have to develop realistic expectations and, in doing so, avoid burnout.