Getting under the skin of perfectionism and anxiety at work

Jo Hooper

Perfectionism and anxiety are traits I am well-acquainted with. 

I was once told by one therapist that I had ‘toxic levels of perfectionism.’ Ouch. 

That basically means that I become so obsessed with getting something perfect – which isn’t even possible as it’s such a subjective analysis – that I never think a piece of work is good enough. Which means I never think I am good enough. What a fun little cycle.

But as a recovering perfectionist, I wanted to share some thoughts on the topic, as well as some tips and tricks that can help you tackle it in yourself. 

I’ve also added in some points to consider if you have a perfectionist in your team.

Perfectionism and anxiety: how can it affect you at work?

I have worked for agencies, in house and now for myself and in every role, perfectionism has had an – at times crippling – effect on me. 

For me, perfectionism and anxiety are closely linked and thinking like a perfectionist fuels my anxiety.  

In my experience, the main impacts of perfectionism at work are:

  • Paralysis: I become so overwhelmed with the prospect of starting a project, the likelihood of it going badly, the feedback I might receive, the anger I’ll feel when I inevitably get something wrong, I become paralysed. Paralysed by fear.
  • Taking feedback badly: Pretty self-explanatory! Whatever feedback I receive, I only hear the bad. For example, I could write a report for a boss, who might praise the approach, content and recommendations, but make a suggestion to re-organise the paper to give it more impact. I’ll fixate on the last point. 
  • Rumination: This is where the perfectionism – anxiety loop really kicks in. That suggestion to re-order that paper? That’ll stay with me. I’ll tell myself that I should have thought of it. I’ll start thinking that I’m not good enough, not strategic enough, if I was better at my job I would have thought of doing it that way. The feedback plus my anxious brain will keep tossing it around for weeks.
  • Craving feedback: Conversely, although feedback can be hard to handle, I find I crave it. When it’s good (!), that feedback can be validation that I’ve done something right.

Now I work for myself, I find perfectionism easier to handle and keep under control. 

I am starting to understand that not everything can be perfect. Beginning to happy with what I’m capable of, learning to push the boundaries of what I’m comfortable with and learn new skills. 

Learning new skills is helping to show me that I am capable of more than I think. It seems that learning helps to counter-act the effects of the perfectionism. I’ve been learning a lot about photography recently and the progress I’m making there makes me feel like I can learn, achieve and progress, without being perfect.

perfectionism and anxiety

How does perfectionism affect others?

So many people struggle with perfectionism – when I asked on Twitter, 81% of people said they did. I also asked how perfectionism affected people at work – both on Twitter and Instagram, here are some insights:

“We’ve been guilty of it for a while, and we recently decided as a team that if we’re 80-90% happy with it, it’s done.” MobFit

“I often finish late, because I hate handing things back to be done by someone else or half finishing things.” Laura Stringer, Nurse

“If I’m asked to do a job, I have to be thorough with attention to detail, though this can mean a job takes me twice as long as anyone else.” Erin, Retail 

“I am a perfectionist and have ridiculously high expectations of myself and others, but I’ve learned to apply the 80:20 rule. Only a small proportion of what you do actually elicits a real effect or outcome. It is OK to be imperfect.” Martin Flegg, Internal Comms Consultant

depression at work
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Tips for dealing with your own perfectionism

  • Learn. Try something new. The knowledge that you can do or learn something you couldn’t do before will remind you that you’re capable. Remind you that 
  • Split tasks into must do and could do. The sheer scale of what you’ve got on can trigger perfectionist thoughts. Not everything needs to be done right now. Try splitting your to do list into ‘must do’ and ‘could do.’ Focus on the must do’s and if you have time, try and get to one of the could do’s. This is a tip from fantastic planning and productivity mentor, Josephine Brooks
  • Tell yourself you’ve done good things. And believe it. A large part of perfectionism from me is the worry about the feedback or perception of others. I know that I need to learn to listen to intrinsic validation – that is validation from me. It’s a toughie, but powerful.
  • Done is better than perfect. If your fear of failure stops you from starting or finishing, try and remind yourself that done is better than perfect. It’s better to get something out there than sit on it forever for fear that it won’t be perfect. 

What to consider if you have a perfectionist in your team

  • Feedback, feedback, feedback. The person might crave it and yet be crushed by it at times. Try to encourage them to assess their own performance – they might need nudging to acknowledge any good things.
  • Encourage them to see done as the goal. This will be tough and the person might be reluctant to share any work that isn’t completely done, but see if you can get them to share work in progress and let them know when you think it’s pretty much done and ready.
  • Help the person to prioritise what will have the most impact – Martin’s tip can really help a perfectionist to prioritise and see the wood for the imperfect trees.

Do you struggle with perfectionism? Do you have any other tips? Please share!

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