Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part IV

The negative consequences of perfectionism, including burnout and poor decision-making

We have been talking about shame for some weeks now. We have talked about the distinction between shame and guilt. About how shame is about what we want to show, hide, and protect from others’ looks – regardless of whether the person looking at us is doing it in a friendly or a critical way. We’ve also started to explore some of the internal psychological defences to the negative experience of being shamed. Among these, feelings of grandiosity and fantasies of destruction.

Before we go further, it bears talking a bit about what is at the core of shame. In many respects, it is an unsatiated longing for acceptance, love, and recognition of who and what we are. Where this need is not sufficiently met in our early years, it can leave a wound that remains with us. Subconsciously our unconscious then seeks the recognition that who we are is good enough. This segues into the next internal defence for shame: perfectionism. Here, we endeavour to be so good that we cannot remain unrecognised and, ultimately, undervalued as a person. This last part – ‘as a person’ – is important because shame relates to existential questions.

Perfectionism is an example of our directly taking action in response to shaming. This differs from feelings of grandiosity and fantasies of destruction, where it is quite possible that our responses remain buried within our inner worlds and perhaps only express themselves passively (e.g. passive aggression). With perfectionism, we attempt – through actions – to make ourselves un-criticisable. Best described as a ‘distressed perfectionism’, we try to do everything incredibly well. Thus, we don’t give 100%, we give 110%. Failure becomes something that it is quite difficult to contend with. When it occurs, we may use it and the self-talk it sparks to drive ourselves harder or make our efforts less fallible.

How then could perfectionism be bad for our careers and leadership in a competitive world that demands more and more? We explore the key ways in which it can show up negatively for us, including burn out and risk of career derailment and unconscious bias.

Perfectionism is a major culprit of burn out. We drive ourselves to ever higher levels of performance regardless of the cost. Our health suffers and our emotional stability becomes frazzled. We usually don’t pay attention to the warning signals until we literally have to be ‘taken out of the game’. In many cases, we believe that this is simply a sacrifice inherent to pursuing a certain standard of excellence. It is very difficult to divorce us from our commitment to this, and thus we end up making significant personal sacrifices. Sometimes we will feel it is worth it, other times, we may look back with the benefit of hindsight and realise that we have lost something valuable that we cannot regain. The question then becomes two-fold: 1) Is the sacrifice truly worth it? and 2) What sacrifices do you make that you’re _not_ aware of – i.e. where are your blind spots, and what could they do, over time, to what and who matters to you?

Accompanying our sacrifices we may make any number of compromised decisions. As we accord significant amounts of energy to perfectionism and test our very capacity, we risk operating from our zone of ‘overextended behaviours’ or the ‘dark-side’ traits that can derail our performance and careers.

Compromised decisions come in several shapes and forms for the perfectionist. First among these, we may constantly put ourselves into highly-challenging situations. Even worse, we may develop a track record for outperformance and ‘doing the impossible’. We may work with the difficult boss or client, proudly bearing the sash of ‘the-only-one-who-can-handle-or-please-them’. In so doing, our careers may bear a hidden opportunity cost. If we weren’t managing this disproportionately challenging situation, what else might benefit from our time and attention? We may subconsciously hold our staff and colleagues to the excruciatingly high standards to which we hold ourselves; in so doing we may overlook other crucial qualities and contributions they make, thus handicapping our teams and strategic goals. Commonly, this shows up in suboptimal hiring decisions, where we hire those that mirror the traits we seek perfection in ourselves. A more subtle but prevalent variation of this is where we hire those who have the traits we ourselves associate – _consciously or unconsciously_ – with success. These include, but are not limited to, speech cadences, how people dress, mannerisms, their alma mater, skin colour, gender, political views, etc. Thus, it is easy for our own motivations regarding perfection to accord value to identifiers, and thereby create unconscious biases that inform our decision-making and the cultures we create at our organisations.

Compromising decisions also include driving ourselves so hard that we sail right past warning signals including dizziness, weakened immune systems, increased accident-proneness, gastroenteritis, migraines, and many other somatic responses to heightened levels of prolonged stress and emotional and physical duress. This may be accompanied by overindulgence in compensating activities, where we ‘reward’ ourselves for the toughness we subject ourselves to with too much food, too much alcohol, too much exercise, too much TV-bingeing, etc. All of these can impact our health and wellbeing.

Overextended behaviours are those that we engage in when we are put under stress, when we react to unexpected events, or when we are quite unconscious of our behaviours. Behaving from the zone of overextended behaviours can make the difference between taking charge and being controlling; between being adaptable and becoming unfocused; between being evidence-based and getting lost in the details. In a similar vein, when fatigued by the demands of our own perfectionism, we become more prone to acting from our ‘dark side’ personality traits. Here, if we have a tendency to be sceptical, this may surface in behaviours that include retaliating when wronged, or being prone to interpret others’ behaviour as a sign of betrayal or disrespect. For comparison, if we had a tendency towards being imaginative, this may surface negatively in changing focus too quickly and too often, being difficult for others to understand, or being too playful and innovative for the situation at hand.

Since these overextended behaviours and dark side traits are unguarded reactions, they can do real damage to your performance and reputation if left unchecked. If you’re less patient when you’re pursuing a tight and challenging deadline, your team may see you as unreasonable and unfair (and they may be right). If you tend towards being more direct with people when you are under pressure, you may come to be viewed as a bulldozer and people may avoid working with you, or you may be seen as lacking sufficient tact to be promoted.

Aside from sacrifices, and compromised decisions and behaviours, perfectionism can visit you with two other unpleasantries: being tough to relate to, and having problems completing tasks and projects. The former poses particular challenges for developing authenticity as a leader and creating stakeholder buy-in, and the latter can completely stymy the career progression of some of even the most intelligent and capable individuals. We will explore these manifestations of perfectionism in greater depth next week.