The Fine Line Between Beneficial and Detrimental

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An article published in Psychology Today (When Virtue Becomes Vice, October 2013) took an interesting look at some of the traits that are often revered – virtues, if you will – and made a claim that any virtue, when taken too far, can be very unhealthy. It states that “some virtues are just a few degrees away from antisocial behaviours with negative consequences”. In order to understand this, one must recognize that traits are usually found on a continuum – rather than being “outgoing” or “introverted”, people will fall somewhere along the continuum, being outgoing to a certain degree or introverted to a certain degree. Consider the following “good” traits, listed on the left, with the negative interpretations of the same trait taken too far on the right:mower & grass

Organized ⇔ Obsessive
Daring ⇔ Risky
Modest ⇔ Insecure
Confident ⇔ Arrogant
Cautious ⇔ Anxious
Persuasive ⇔ Domineering
Friendly ⇔  Ingratiating
(As a boss or leader) Being involved ⇔ Micromanaging
Wanting fairness for everyone ⇔  Obsessive score keeping
Being passionate about something ⇔  Being obsessive about something
Agreeability ⇔  Inability to be assertive
Collaboration ⇔ Diffused accountability
Work-life balance ⇔ Cloistered, overly controlled life.

The author also takes a long look at perfectionism. People who observe perfectionists will often do so with a sense of awe or even jealously at how meticulous and prepared the person might seem to be. Anyone who would identify as being a perfectionist would likely not be so quick to elevate the quality. Perfectionism can “shut down creativity and risk-taking and indicate a lack of priorities – everything doesn’t have to be done perfectly; some things just need to get done.” In one study of academic productivity among psychology professors, those with a higher rating of “perfectionism” tended to have fewer publications, suggesting that perfectionism can restrict productivity.

The article suggests that it is too easy to simply consider some traits beneficial – our assumptions about what is or isn’t beneficial consistently need to be re-examined in our ever-changing world. Perhaps then, the most important trait is adaptability. A sense of self-awareness of when a particular trait is contributing in a positive way or when a trait is holding you back is crucial. Just because a trait served you well in the past, does not mean it still does or will continue to do so.

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