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The Right Way To Be A Perfectionist

New research suggests that being a perfectionist isn't always a negative, stress-inducing thing.

For the first time, researchers pored over all of the prior studies on perfectionism and burnout. (Clearly a few perfectionists among those academics, no?) Earlier studies found that perfectionists tend to both set high personal expectations and unleash a large dose of harsh self-criticism if they don't measure up. The first part, setting high goals, is a trait the researchers call “perfectionist striving.” The second part, familiar to sticklers everywhere, is called “perfectionist concerns,” and involves the tendency to worry about screwing up and disappointing other and yourself. It’s this darker side of perfectionism that can pile on stress that leads to burnout, especially at the office. (Perfectionist-related burnout was found to be more common at work than in sports or education.)

"Aiming high isn't a bad thing on its own," says Andy Hill, PhD, lead study author and an associate professor of health and life sciences at York St. John University in the UK. "It's the meaning you give to your inability to meet a goal that's the problem. Perfectionists who worry about making mistakes or letting other people down don't see that as an isolated failure -- they see it as a complete failure of themselves."

But there's an interesting group in the mix: Some nitpickers exhibit only the helpful, high-goal setting trait, says Hill. For the rest of us type As, being flexible about our goals can help us practice a healthier form of perfectionism.

One idea for taking some pressure off yourself when you start to worry about falling short on a task: "Write down what an ideal performance, a good performance and an acceptable performance would look like," suggests Hill. "Then note what you're up against in terms of time and resources and pick the goal that's most realistic." Not only will this cut short the procrastination that I just need to spend one more hour on it perfectionists are prone to, but it will also help move less important -- and less deserving of worry -- items off your to-do list quickly.

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