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From Perfectionism to PTSD

How Controlling Workplace Environments Can Fuel Trauma

We all know that burnout is a very real phenomenon in the workplace. Stressful environments can leave us feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and exhausted - but what happens when these conditions push us to our limits and beyond? And can a toxic work environment cause PTSD?


This article will examine how controlling workplace environments can spiral into a perfectionism-shame-burnout cycle, leading to increased distress and post-trauma symptoms.


Can a Toxic Work Environment Cause PTSD?

While it's normal to associate the term "trauma" with major events such as natural disasters, physical or sexual assault, combat, or life-threatening situations, did you know that even events less severe than major traumas like these can still have a significant impact on a person's health?


These traumatic events, known as "little 'T' traumas," can include, but certainly aren't limited to, events like emotional abuse, neglect, bullying, witnessing a violent crime, or a serious car accident that doesn't result in physical injury.


The reality is that trauma can be any event or situation that causes significant distress. The toxic work environments becoming far too familiar in today's society can cause trauma response symptoms – especially for those working in demanding environments that reward perfectionism.



When your controlling, demanding, and toxic work environment causes you to feel like attaining perfect results at your job is the only thing that matters, it can kickstart a perfectionism-shame-burnout cycle that can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and self-criticism.


This chronic stress can wear down a person's resilience and ability to cope, making them more vulnerable to experiencing traumatic events or reacting more severely to stressors that others might more easily handle.


While perfectionism itself is not a traumatic event, the traumatizing effects of toxic work culture can cause severe distress, and the perfectionism-shame-burnout cycle is a prime example of how this happens.


What is the Perfectionism-Shame-Burnout Cycle?

The perfectionism-shame-burnout cycle is a negative cycle that can occur when dealing with perfectionism. Here's how the cycle works:

  1. Perfectionism: The cycle starts with perfectionism, a tendency to set impossibly high standards for oneself. Perfectionists often have an all-or-nothing mindset and may believe that anything less than perfection is a failure.

  2. Shame: When perfectionists inevitably fall short of their high standards, they may experience intense shame. They may feel like they're not good enough, have let themselves or others down, or are a fraud.

  3. Burnout: The shame and self-criticism that result from perfectionism can lead to burnout. Perfectionists may push themselves to work harder and longer to meet their impossible standards, leading to exhaustion, stress, and even physical health problems.

  4. Perfectionism (renewed): Despite experiencing burnout, perfectionists may return to their all-or-nothing mindset and set even higher standards, repeating the cycle.

The Unhealthy Combination of Perfectionism and a Toxic Work Culture

When you're a perfectionist, you're already task-oriented and focused on results. This means you might already be working long hours, settling for nothing less than the best - with or without the pressures of a toxic workplace.


While there's nothing wrong with having high standards, when perfectionism takes over, it can start to impact your life negatively. It can be even more damaging when combined with a toxic work environment.


A toxic work culture is characterized by unrealistic demands, constant criticism, and a lack of support. It's the kind of environment that breeds perfectionism. If you're constantly being told that your work is never good enough and that you need to do better, it's only natural that you'll start to believe it. You'll start to think that nothing you do is ever good enough and that you must strive for perfection in everything you do.


When your work-life balance is already 1-0, and you have a demanding job that doesn't leave room for error, or an employer or colleague that manipulates you with unfair negotiations, verbal intimidation, or insincere praise, it's even easier to end up burning yourself out and experiencing the traumatic impact of toxic work culture.


How Can a Toxic Work Environment Lead to the Perfectionism-Shame-Burnout Cycle?

While individuals already struggling with perfectionism may be more prone to this cycle and the psychological damage of a toxic work environment, it's important to note that these environments can trigger perfectionist tendencies in any employee – or at least contribute to similar outcomes, like burnout.


In a toxic work environment, employees may be subjected to excessive workloads, unrealistic deadlines, and pressure to perform at all costs, leading to chronic stress and burnout.

Furthermore, a toxic work environment may foster a culture of shame and blame, in which mistakes are not tolerated, and employees are punished for perceived failure. This can exacerbate the perfectionism cycle, as employees may feel compelled to maintain unrealistic standards to avoid being singled out or reprimanded.


Over time, this chronic stress and self-criticism can lead to emotional exhaustion, a diminished sense of self-worth, and a loss of motivation and productivity. The perfectionism-shame-burnout cycle can become a self-reinforcing pattern in which a person's perfectionism fuels their sense of shame, leading to burnout and further erosion of self-esteem.


How Does the Perfectionism-Shame-Burnout Cycle Lead to Trauma?

Perfectionism itself is not a risk factor for PTSD. Still, when coupled with the shame and burnout triggered by the demands of a toxic work environment, it can contribute to a person experiencing trauma responses that lead to a disruption in emotional functioning.


While the DSM-5 defines PTSD in the context of bodily or life-threatening situations, an accumulation of less pronounced events (in the small "t" form) can still be traumatic and impair one's quality of life.


For example, the burnout stage of the cycle can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, which can impact a person's ability to cope with everyday stressors and contribute to feelings of helplessness and despair.



The shame and self-criticism accompanying perfectionism can also be traumatic, causing a person to feel a sense of worthlessness, hopelessness, and disconnection from others.

In addition to interpersonal difficulties and social isolation, perfectionists may have difficulty forming close, supportive relationships because they are so focused on their self-imposed standards, leading to feelings of loneliness and disconnection.


Understanding and Overcoming the Impact of Trauma and Perfectionism

It's important to note that not everyone who experiences perfectionism or gets caught in the perfectionist-shame-burnout cycle will develop post-trauma symptoms.


Similarly, not all those facing little "t" traumas will develop PTSD. The likelihood of developing PTSD after trauma depends on several factors, including a person's age, gender, pre-existing mental health conditions, and the severity and duration of the trauma.


Still, even the "smallest" of traumas can greatly impact our lives. And unfortunately, it's common for perfectionist individuals, who may experience increasingly high feelings of shame or feel embarrassed for thinking they are "dramatic," to downplay such experiences.


However, reacting this way is a form of avoidance that won't improve things. It's important to recognize these feelings and understand why they exist to deal with them properly.


With or without the burden of trauma or PTSD, it's important for those who struggle with perfectionism to recognize this cycle and the effects of toxic work culture and break free of it. This may involve setting more realistic goals, practicing self-compassion, seeking support from others, and learning to let go of the need for perfection.