Dr. Komaroff, 2-21-12: Perfectionism has it upside and downside

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DEAR DOCTOR K: I've always been a bit of a perfectionist -- perhaps more than a bit. This trait helps me in many ways, but sometimes it causes me stress. I wonder if it might have a downside. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons?

DEAR READER: There are definitely pros and cons to perfectionism. Also, keep in mind that the world isn't neatly divided into perfectionists and non-perfectionists: There's a little perfectionism in a lot of people. There surely is in me. (At least, that's what some people say.)

Perfectionism definitely has an upside. Doing a job as well as you can is a quality found in many corporate leaders, skilled surgeons or Olympic champions.

But perfectionism can be exhausting -- as you may have noticed. Most of us feel like we have more on our plate than we can easily deal with. The more time we spend trying to get one thing right, the less time for something else. So we need more time, and the time has to come from somewhere. Usually, it comes from time you should spend kicking back and relaxing -- and we need to relax.

In its more extreme forms, perfectionism can also be hazardous to your mental health. It can lead to a tendency toward endless self-criticism. You find yourself focusing on your mistakes rather than on your achievements. If you have a tendency to suffer from depression, perfectionism can trigger it.

We don't really know what causes perfectionism. Some people are born to be perfectionists. Watch two kids of the same age playing with the same blocks. One kid lines the blocks up perfectly, with no gaps. Another lines them up slightly askew. I think perfectionism in parents is learned by their children, particularly those who are born to be perfectionists.

One resource that may help you get the most positive return from your perfectionism is a new book from Harvard Health Publications called "The Perfectionist's Handbook." It can help you channel your perfectionism to be productive with less effort and maintain balance in your work and life.

The bottom line is that perfectionism is a double-edged sword. Setting high standards for yourself can be a very good thing. But if you are constantly beating yourself up when you don't meet these standards, it can quickly turn negative.

Even if your perfectionism is not affecting how you feel about yourself, it can be counterproductive. The biggest problem with perfectionism: It can feed upon itself and make the perfect harder to achieve. There's an old saying that "Not everything worth doing is worth doing well." I'm not sure I agree with that, but I would definitely say, "Not everything worth doing is worth doing perfectly."

You are the best judge of whether your perfectionism has crossed the line from a helpful personality trait to a burden. If it has, the book I mentioned may help. A talk with a mental health professional may also help you sort things out.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information: www.AskDoctorK.com.)

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