When perfectionism and to-do lists lead to illness

Perfectionism can lead to an unhealthy build-up of stress. Rather than desiring success, perfectionists tend to focus more on avoiding failure. It is this negative orientation that often leads to the accumulation of stress.


Am I a perfectionist?

You could ask yourself the following questions if you are wondering whether you are suffering from perfectionism. You may be a perfectionist if you answer yes to the following:

  • Do you find yourself being unable to say no when asked to complete a seemingly impossible set of to-do lists? 
  • Do you worry what others, especially your boss, might think of you if you push back in any way to increased demands in the workplace?  

Difference between good stress and bad stress

Good stress is when you are motivated to improve your performance and to develop your time management and organisational skills by meeting the demands of a busy workload. Bad stress is when you struggle to maintain coherent thinking and instead experience a form of panic about your work and your workload and other areas of your life suffer as a consequence. Bad stress is commonly associated with perfectionism.

You know when bad stress has impacted the quality of your life when you start to see the following happening:

  • A feeling like you are about to drown when thinking about your workload.
  • Becoming increasingly annoyed with work colleagues dropping by your desk for a chat and a catch-up when you have so much to do.
  • Worried about getting fired from your job.
  • Anxiety about future employability if you are fired or if you resign.
  • Finding it difficult to switch off at night and to drop off to sleep. 
  • Waking up early, or in the middle of the night, and in a panic about unfinished tasks from your to-do list.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • States of anxiety at home for no apparent reason like at the weekends.
  • Getting increasingly irritated with others in your life.
  • Replaying conversations from work in your head and wishing you had said something in response to the incessant demands.

Work-related stress affects all aspects of your life. It is very difficult to demarcate your stress from work and home life. Inevitably the stress from one area will spill over into the other.

Being in a pressurised corporate environment might be exactly where you want to be in your career. It might also be the case that pushing back on the workload might be perceived as a sign of weakness, especially if you work in a sector with a culture of long hours. However, it is also a sign of strength to be able to determine when you are operating at your outer limits and to communicate that to your boss in a calm and assertive way. Your productivity will ultimately decline if you fail to acknowledge the limitations of your capacity to perform in an effective manner.

What are some ways to overcome perfectionism?

Some tips on how to deal with perfectionism are:

  • Stick to attainable goals.
  • Repeat to yourself at the start of each working day that there is a healthy difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection.
  • Accept that some levels of anxiety are OK.
  • Allow yourself some “downtime” and to do nothing. You need to recharge your batteries by having proper rest.
  • Keep journals detailing your thoughts during most stressful times in your working day.
  • Challenge your irrational thoughts. You are a worthy member of the team without having to constantly prove yourself by taking on more and more tasks at work.
  • Learn to say no when bombarded with unrealistic demands even from the boss.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes. You can learn from mistakes.

Knowing you have options to relieve your anxiety and to reduce stress levels can provide a sense of empowerment in your life. You could speak to your GP if worried about your anxiety and stress levels. You could also speak to the employee assisted services at your organisation if you are comfortable with their confidentiality policies. In therapy you could explore how you originally acquired the perfectionist streak. A therapist will help you to challenge your irrational thoughts and can provide a supporting and private space for you to assess your decision-making processes.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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