Perfectionism is often viewed as a requirement for success, however a recent study from the University of Bath has found that it is in fact closely associated with burnout, chronic stress and reduced achievement. Dr Thomas Curran, who co-authored the research, concluded that “perfectionism is a largely destructive trait.”
Both scientific and anecdotal evidence show us that perfectionism is largely a female issue. At school, many girls will only answer a question if they are certain of the answer, or only sign up for an extra-curricular activity if they already have the skills to excel. This tendency continues in the workplace, where women will often hold back from asking for a raise or applying for a new job until they are entirely certain they are deserving. Women generally apply for a promotion only when they meet 100 percent of the listed requirements. Men will apply when they meet just 50 percent.
While we strongly encourage our girls to strive for personal excellence, we must ensure they know that we are asking for their best efforts, not the best possible results. Constantly fixating on perfection leads to unnecessary stress and wasted time. It gets in the way of finishing projects, or sometimes even starting them. And because no one can ever reach true perfection, it destroys confidence.
Perfectionism also leads to a fear of failure. This is an issue because failure is one of the greatest learning experiences. When you fail, you learn what works, what doesn’t, and how you need to grow. It is therefore incredibly worthwhile to take risks and try new things – if you fail, the personal reward may be even greater than if you had succeeded.
There are several steps we can all take to ensure that perfectionism does not hinder the achievements of our girls. We can set realistic standards, and teach them that perfection is not attainable. We can praise the risks they take and the work ethic they display, not just the grades and awards they receive. Finally, we can laugh at our own mistakes, and show them that failure is simply an opportunity to start again with improved knowledge.
There is a fine line between being conscientious and being a perfectionist – between striving to reach high standards of excellence and feeling defeated through the inability to reach unrealistic expectations. We must take every opportunity to ensure our girls know the difference.
Jessica Bennett, Time, 2014. It’s Not You, It’s Science: How Perfectionism Holds Women Back.
Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, 2015. Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-analysis.