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The double-edged sword of perfectionism

Perfectionism – probably the most common “worst trait,” in any job interview. In this instance it is seen as a positive; that you strive for greatness, that your work is consistently to a high standard, that you expect the best from yourself and those around you. But what about the instance when perfectionism isn’t so great? When these strivings impact your mental health as you are so concerned and fearful of not being the best? Perfectionism is a double-edged sword.

You could say I suffer from perfectionism. I expect a certain standard from myself, when I don’t achieve it and I am just “good,” I get frustrated. My “good,” standard of work is still quite good, but I rarely see that. It is likely that I will have mulled over and considered every word choice and sentence structure a few hundred times by the time I publish this post. There are instances whereby I forget that it is ok to fail, that I will probably learn more from failure than I would have if I did the task correctly initially. I believe that if I am going to do something, I will do it right – much to my own detriment at times.

Perfectionism is defined as a combination of excessively high personal standards coupled with overly critical self-evaluation. It is evident amongst athletes, artists, musicians, students, it is evident across people’s work and their everyday lives. It is not restricted to professionals, but extends to amateur athletes and the average individual. There are two key elements: perfectionistic strivings (PS) and perfectionistic concerns (PC). Firstly, PS is seen as the setting of high personal standards. While PC are the aspects that are concerned with making mistakes, fear of negative evaluations from others, and negative reactions to imperfection. Each element is more prevalent depending on the context and situation we find ourselves in. They co-exist and we cannot have one without the other.

But we can have high standards without being perfectionistic, this is seen more as conscientious whereby one is diligent in their work, hardworking, organised and efficient. But it is when the standards or accomplishments contribute to our self-esteem and self-worth then we are perfectionistic. The high standards we set fuel our sense of self, further contributing to our desire to set such high standards.

You can probably already see how these high standards can play out in affecting our mental health. If achieving the high standard contributes to our sense of self and self-worth we will likely want to experience it again. Thus pushing the bar of our high standards. Eventually, we will push it to a point where we can longer achieve it. If we are unable to reach something which contributes to our sense of self this will likely contribute negatively to our mental health. Those that are perfectionistic are more susceptible to experiences of burnout and poor mental health.

Perfectionism is a huge source of motivation for athletes and the desire to be the best they can be can bring about some wondrous results. But in the desire to achieve perfectionism, many experience feelings of doubt, anxiousness, fear and worry. We can never truly experience perfection. However, we can still encourage our athletes to strive for high standards without suggesting that their achievements directly contribute to who they are. Our athletes are more than the sport they play and the things they accomplish. They are a culmination of the things they like and dislike, the subjects they study, the work they do, the people they interact with, and many other things we rarely consider.

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