During a job interview, many applicants strategically prepare for this precarious question, “what is your greatest weakness?” More than one applicant, hoping to nimbly bypass answering this double-edged query has humbly said, “my perfectionistic tendencies.” This answer is supposed to somehow reassure evaluators that you are a hard worker, the employee who stays late trying to get their work just right and refuses to accept anything less than their best… but this answer is somehow still acceptable as a weakness.
In a society where a growth mindset is celebrated and not reaching your full potential can lead to depression, perfectionism is just as much a flaw as it is a flex. No one can deny the positive implications this personality trait has for performance or productivity in the workplace and in other domains as well. Let’s take a closer look at the dark side of striving for perfection:
1. Perfectionist expectations might be unrealistic expectations and can lead to cognitive distortions, such as black-and-white thinking, or nothing mentality, discounting the positive, and “should” statements. These cognitive distortions contribute to shaping our brains to pay attention to the “lack” or the glass half empty, which fuels anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.
2. Nobody tells you that when you hold high standards for yourself, it is incredibly difficult not to start imposing these standards on others around you. This personality trait does not come with an off switch you can activate when you are with others. You may find yourself becoming critical or focusing on the flaws of those closest to you.
3. When your standards are not met, you might feel crushing feelings of inadequacy and disappointment. Or worse, you might find yourself more and more preoccupied with negative thoughts about yourself on repeat. You may find yourself demoralized, helpless, paralyzed, and difficult to continue trying.
It’s important to delineate the threshold of aspirational goal setting vs. harmful perfectionism. If you are setting standards for yourself at the cost of your mental or physical health, you may want to reevaluate your goals. If you are unable to adjust your goals and notice they have become increasingly rigid, it may be helpful to talk to your mental health provider. If you see repetitive thoughts around hopelessness and feelings of disgust towards yourself, it may be time to acknowledge that your ideals of perfectionism are harming you and are no longer serving you. With your mental health provider, you can ask for cognitive strategies to increase flexibility around your beliefs, ways to seek support and relaxation specific to your needs, and increasing awareness around safeguards or boundaries to alert you that you are leaning into a distorted self-image.