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Dangerous Dualities: Perfectionism and low self-esteem

Posted by Deb Muoio

Aug 21, 2015 10:20:57 AM


Here's a mission impossible: Try to find someone who has high self-esteem but who is also an extreme perfectionist. Chances are you won't. Why? Because even though people with high self-esteem will push themselves to do their best, they also accept that they are not infallible and that they will mess up along the way. So who is more likely to be an unhealthy perfectionist? According to a study we conducted, people with a poor self-image have a greater tendency of setting unreasonably high expectations for themselves – and for others.

According to the data we collected from our Perfectionism Test, people with low self-esteem tend to be harder on themselves and others than people with high self-esteem. Here are some of the highlights of that study.

Self-oriented perfectionism

  • 82% of people with low self-esteem worry about what others think of them (compared to 38% of people with high self-esteem).

  • 74% admit that they fall short of their own expectations (compared to 25% of people with high self-esteem).

  • 61% have difficulty bouncing back from failure (compared to 18% of people with high self-esteem).

  • 60% believe that failing an assignment makes them a failure as a person (compared to 33% of people with high self-esteem).

  • Only 56% are proud of their achievements (compared to 90% of people with high self-esteem).

  • 56% are only proud of their work if it receives their boss’ praise (compared to 33% of people with high self-esteem).

  • 53% focus exclusively on their failures rather than their successes (compared to 9% of people with high self-esteem).

  • 42% believe that even a minor mistake will give their boss the impression that they are incompetent (compared to 18% of people with high self-esteem). Even just the possibility of making a mistake worries 78% of low self-esteem people (compared to 49% of people with high self-esteem).

Other-oriented perfectionism

Here’s what will surprise you, however. You may think that individuals with low self-esteem are so focused on their own shortcomings that they won’t notice the inadequacies of others (or won’t dare to point them out).

Our study shows otherwise. Along with setting the bar unreasonably high for themselves, people with low self-esteem also tend to extend some of their perfectionistic tendencies to other people.

Here’s what our study reveals:

  • 55% of people with low self-esteem expect others to complete tasks and chores exactly according to their preference.
  • 50% get impatient when someone in their family makes a mistake or messes up (compared to 34% of people with high self-esteem).
  • 47% expect the people in their life to live up to the expectation they set for them (compared to 35% of people with high self-esteem).
  • 39% get frustrated when they find a mistake in someone else’s work (compared to 29% of people with high self-esteem).

There is a lot of grey between the white and the black …

It’s important to set at least some expectations for ourselves and for others, as long as they are reasonable. So if an employee puts in the bare minimum effort to get a project done and doesn’t bother to check over his/her work for mistakes (or consistently makes the same error, even though you’ve pointed it out several times), there’s nothing wrong with expecting (and asking for) better quality work.

If, however, you delegate one of your tasks to someone who has little experience in the area, you need to anticipate that there will be a learning curve, and that they may take a different route to completing the task. Wanting the task to be done your way and according to your standards without any errors is an unreasonable expectation.


Whether you set excessively high expectations for yourself or for others (or both), we offer the following tips:
  • Set SMART goals:
Specific: Rather than simply stating “I want to improve my sales”, have a number in mind, for example “by 10% in 6 months.”

Measurable: Being able to track your progress at set intervals (every month, for example) is important - you’ll see and appreciate the fruit of your toil.

Attainable: This is the key to success. Goals that are too easy won’t motivate you; goals that are too hard will discourage you and are more likely to be left unfinished. Set a goal that is high, but within reach. Stretch targets may work in the short-term and in some circumstances, but chronic use of stretch targets lead to learned helplessness and burnout.

Relevant: Why are you setting this particular goal? Why do you want to achieve it? You’ll be much more motivated to achieve a goal that means something to you. Setting relevant goals will keep you motivated and focused.

Time-bound: Set a realistic deadline. This will keep your eyes on the prize. Setting a goal to be achieved at some vague time in the future is not going to stick. That being said, be willing to tweak your deadline if unexpected situations arise.
  • Here are some other goal-setting tips:
Break down your goals into smaller seps and create milestones for yourself. Achieving smaller goals will encourage you and keep you motivated, and make that one large goal seem more and more attainable.

Celebrate achievement of milestones.
Give yourself small rewards for reaching a small goal, and plan for a major reward after achieving your main goal.

Enlist the help of others to keep you on track. Find someone who has either achieved the goal you’re striving for, or someone who will simply be there to offer their emotional support.
  • Don't make assumptions. If your boss doesn't compliment your work, don't assume that he or she isn't satisfied with it. Rather than stew in doubt, ask: "What did you think of my work on that last assignment?" Remember that the way you interpret a situation may not come close to the reality.

  • Accept compliments! When a manager, colleague or anyone else praises your work, thank them and leave it at that. Chances are that if they didn't mean it, they wouldn't have said it in the first place. Better yet, write down every instance when you’ve been complimented, praised or rewarded at work, and review the list when you are feeling particularly down or are being hard on yourself.

  • Set a good example. "Do as I say, not as I do" really doesn't cut it. Rather than making demands of others, why not show them? For example, instead of criticizing an employee for not completing a task or project to your liking, work together during the planning and conceptualization process. Create a clear outline of what you’re looking for. If you don't give people a chance to prove themselves, you'll never know what they're capable of accomplishing.

  • Think of your image. Imagine being around someone who constantly nitpicks and criticizes every mistake you make. We've all met people like this and probably didn't enjoy being around them very much. Unless you change your attitude and learn to appreciate the positive deeds, you may end up alienating and frustrating others.

  • Consider the other person’s self-image. Setting unreasonable standards for others and then judging them harshly when they don't live up to them is downright unfair. It also impacts their self-esteem and can do damage to their psychological and physical health. Imagine how it makes others feel when you treat them this way. Walk a mile in their shoes.
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Topics: Leadership Development, Mentoring, Personal Development, Employee Development, Coaching

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