Perfectionism: Your greatest strength or biggest weakness?


Have you ever been stumped by the dreaded question “what is your greatest weakness?” in a job interview? If so, you’re not alone. You find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to market yourself, yet you’re asked to willingly point out one of your shortcomings? It feels counterintuitive; and so often our instinct (or outdated career advice) tempts us to say something that sounds like a weakness but that can be sold as a strength. Nowadays, most employers see right through this tactic, and we’re advised against responding with the classic, “I’m just too much of a perfectionist!” 

The implication of this tired answer is that being a perfectionist ought to make you more hireable. When we think of perfectionists, we think of those who go above and beyond by setting huge goals and stopping at nothing until they’re achieved. Further, in a culture that loves to glorify “the hustle” and clings at a rather narrow-minded idea of “success,” it’s easy to see why we put perfectionism on a pedestal. From social media to celebrity culture, advertising, and academia, we’ve been conditioned to equate material success with happiness. So, of course, we will see any trait that might get us closer to this ephemeral goal of success as desirable. 

But what if being a perfectionist really could be your greatest weakness? Despite its positive perception, perfectionism is often a maladaptive (or harmful) coping mechanism developed in response to trauma or learned from a parent or caregiver. From the outside, one might see a hardworking go-getter, but actually living with perfectionism can be frustrating and exhausting. It can even stand in the way of personal growth and success. Here are 4 reasons why the trait we often categorize as a strength can actually be a weakness after all: 

It’s harmful to your mental health

Perfectionism does not typically exist exclusively in one area of your life, like work or school. This is because perfectionism isn’t just about being perfect at things, but about beingperfect. In other words, perfectionists put so much weight in their performance that when they fall short, they internalize these feelings of failure. Bombing an important work presentation never feels good, but to the perfectionist something like this can be crushing. To the perfectionist, a failure at one thing means that they are a failure as a person. In reality, of course, nobody is perfect – and setting unattainable standards for yourself doesn’t help you strive for more, it just guarantees a lifetime of disappointment. As a result, perfectionism takes a huge toll on one’s self-esteem and self-worth, and has been linked to a variety of different mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and different eating disorders. 

It holds you back

Because perfectionists take even the smallest of setbacks so personally, landing at anything short of perfect can be an incredibly painful emotional experience. Perfectionists spend a lot of time beating themselves up over tiny mistakes, which makes the idea of trying new things absolutely terrifying. Hardly are we perfectly skilled at something on the first try, and the truth is that not achieving perfection does not equate to failure. This kind of all-or-none thinking, however, fuels perfectionism: If I’m not perfect, I’m terrible. I either aced that test, or I bombed it and I’m a failure. This sounds so harsh, right? Yet so many of us engage in this kind of self-talk daily (but often much less obviously and more implicitly). As a result, this ultimate fear of failure gets in the way of trying new things and living our lives to the fullest.

It takes a toll on your relationships

Perfectionism creates tension within the self – when you’re obsessed with perfection, you’re in constant competition with your own worst critic (you!). This tension can leach into your personal relationships, too. When your mental health is suffering, you simply can’t be the best friend, partner, or parent that you can be, not to mention how emotionally taxing it is for your loved ones to listen to you repeatedly put yourself down or minimize your accomplishments. Finally, if you happen to begin enforcing the unrealistic standards you set for yourself onto others, you put your relationships at risk.

Now that we know the evils of perfectionism, how do we move forward in recovery?

If you’ve been a perfectionist for as long as you can remember, you might not know any other way to “be.” The good news is that since so much of perfectionism is learned, there are things you can do to help free yourself from it. Patience is essential here. Don’t expect to be perfect at learning how to not be perfect – these things took time to learn and will take time unlearn.

Never stop learning

Exploring the ways in which perfectionism may be holding you back is a perfect first step, so if you’ve read this far then you’re on the right track. Hopefully, the more you understand its dangers, the more motivated you will hopefully be towards making some positive changes. There is loads of research and literature on perfectionism out there, so keep reading. 

Challenge all-or-nothing thinking as often as you can

If you catch yourself engaging in negative, black-and-white self-talk, take a moment to pause and come up with a counter to that thought. For example, say you receive some feedback on a work project. You might immediately focus on what you could have done better and your default thought pattern might look something like: “I should have been more careful, I’m so bad at my job.” The implicit belief here is that you’re not enough as you are and that you are a failure. Acknowledge that thought for what it is: just a thought. Then, counter it with something like, “I could have done this differently, but I am human and it is okay to not be perfect. I did my best, and now I am better prepared for next time.” Practicing mindfulness is one great way to get better at catching and stopping yourself from perseverating in these toxic thought patterns.

Finally, have compassion

When you don’t achieve “perfection” in some way and feel like you’ve failed, would you talk to a loved one in the critical ways you might talk to yourself? Probably not. You’d more likely comfort them and remind them of their worth and capabilities (so why would we offer ourselves anything less than the same compassion we show others?). Learning to grant yourself the forgiveness and compassion you give to others automatically may not be easy, but can allow you to live so much more calmly and freely than ever before.