Look familiar? Are these the standards you use to assess your success? If so, you may be on your way to psychological burnout. A new meta-analysis of 43 studies published by Personality and Social Psychology Review found that some aspects of perfectionism can lead to negative psychological outcomes. Now, if you are a recovering perfectionist, you might be thinking,
I’m with you. I, too, have struggled with perfectionism and, subsequently, feeling burned out and exhausted. But this meta-analysis is important for several reasons. First, not only does it present empirical evidence to support people’s personal experiences and anecdotes, but it also condenses and provides a robust summary—an analysis, if you will—of the findings from 43 studies, all while taking into account additional factors, such as the domain (e.g., school, work, sports). In other words, solid findings that you are not imagining things and more details to explain what you might be experiencing. Let’s face it: your perfectionism is probably getting you down.
Researchers Hill and Curran use the following definition of perfectionism and burnout:
- Perfectionism: multidimensional tendency to have exceedingly high standards and to be extremely self-critical1
- Typically expressed through strivings, the setting of high personal standards and an aim for perfection, and concerns, or a fear of making mistakes and judging oneself harshly for them (See above images)
- Burnout: a stress-induced psychosocial syndrome associated with motivational, performance, and psychological deficits2
- Symptoms: emotional exhaustion, cynical attitude, perceived decreases in personal accomplishments and efficacy2
- May resemble something like the images below
The primary finding indicates that perfectionism and burnout are positively correlated. That is, the more perfectionism a person displays, the higher rates of burnout they’re likely to experience, and this was true especially in the work domain (we’ll discuss that later). However, aspects of perfectionism are not equally at fault. Perfectionistic concerns, rather than perfectionistic strivings, accounted for most of the correlation with burnout. In other words, and unsurprisingly, the tendency to be extremely self-critical and to judge oneself harshly are more harmful than setting and striving for high personal standards. In fact, perfectionistic strivings may provide a small buffer against the negativity associated with negative self-evaluation, particularly in school/education or sports.
The work domain was unique in its findings. For people dealing with burnout at work, strivings were found to be less effective at buffering against components of perfectionistic concerns, like cynicism and exhaustion. The researchers suggest that people may feel less in control at work than in school or sports given that a “perfect” work performance is typically more ambiguous. This finding deserves particular attention from ambitious high school or college graduates who are entering the workforce and potentially transitioning to a job with less tangible performance feedback.
Burnout is not inevitable, even if you identify as a perfectionist. Factors such as resilience, ability to cope with stress, and social support can all provide protection against burnout and its associated symptoms.2 So can learning to say no—over-commitment may also contribute to psychological distress.
Keep in mind that this meta-analysis describes correlational relationships. Perfectionism does not cause burnout but, rather, is closely associated with it and certainly a contributing factor. If you’d like to learn more specifics about this particular meta-analysis, check out the references below. Let’s just ignore the irony of me wanting to perfect this post before publishing it.
1-Frost, R.O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449-468.
2-Hill, A.P. & Curran, T. (2015). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1-20.