Identify and Overcome Toxic Productivity & Perfectionism (Part 1)

Aiko Bethea
5 min readDec 1, 2023


Note: This is an issue of our #StreetLights Newsletter featured on LinkedIn. For regular updates, please subscribe.

What’s on Tap

This week, we’re tapping into toxic productivity and perfectionism.

Toxic productivity is when we feel (and believe) we need to be productive at all times and at all costs. This can look like workaholism on steroids, and the inability to do anything purely for personal joy, such as socializing, resting, or reading for recreation.

Deeply entangled with toxic productivity is perfectionism, or the need to be (or appear to be) perfect. Perfectionism often includes the belief that love, connection, and our worth are dependent upon how flawless we are. Perfectionism leads to having an acute inner critic, that small voice inside your head reminding you of every mistake, telling you you’re not good enough or you’re not worthy. The inner critic can yield in severe emotional reactions (such as anger, guilt, and shame) to perceived personal failures.

Please Note: Perfectionism is different from striving for high achievement. To excel, you have to overcome your fears and not be afraid to make mistakes. Perfectionism, on the other hand, lends itself to a life of underachievement, driven by insecurity about the failure to meet the unachievable standard of perfection. Perfectionists can easily ruminate in self-blame, regret, and a lack of self-worth, and this rumination interferes with even the best-laid plans.

Both perfectionism and toxic productivity can result in health issues like depression, anxiety, and chronic stress.

Family and Community of Origin Narratives

Perfectionism and toxic productivity can begin during childhood when our family or community of origin sends the message that we need to be better than all others. For folx of color, this messaging was embedded in motivating success and an insurmountable work ethic. As a Black person or person of color, have you ever been told: You need to work 10 times as hard and be 10 times as good to get half the recognition. Similarly, many immigrant families exemplify a work ethic than can leave anyone with a 40 hour week job being labeled as lazy. (These are both not only my own personal story, but also too many who are a part of my personal community. I am actively trying to unlearn perpetuating this messaging to my children.)

I started with our community and family of origins because sometimes it’s taboo to name this. This leaves us only looking outward to systems and power structures as the source of perfectionism and toxic productivity. Capitalism and power are of course, drivers of perfectionism and toxic productivity. Even within these family and community of origin narratives, white supremacy can easily be traced to the root.

The trope of Black people being lazy is unreal when you consider the hundreds of years of back-breaking free labor under torture and anguish that our community provided. When one also considers the history of migrant labor by folx of color you would be hard pressed to ever apply the term lazy. Alas, tropes can uphold the power status quo and leave many of us continuing to self-inflict harm that doesn’t serve Us.

Note that family and community of origin narratives are also rampant in other demographic groups. Many will relate to being reminded that rest is not a priority, winning is critical, and holding of the family or community legacy is key. Do any of these messages resonate:

  • Follow in the family legacy of attending Harvard, Andover, or any elite academically and sports institute.
  • Win, win, win
  • Be the first woman to x, y, z means no space for failure because it will impact the opportunity of every other woman
  • Hear that [fill in your name] always has there ducks in the row. You can always count on them. There work is over perfect. Or, they will get the job done no matter what.
  • Don’t be lazy. You know we’re a family that gets things done. There’s no time for dilly dallying.


To show up from an empowered position, we must recognize and name how even our often beloved and trusted personal systems and individuals have perpetuated harmful, or at the least unhelpful narratives and believes. Then, we must replace them with realistic standards coupled with narratives like:

No matter how much I get done today, I am enough.

Mistakes are necessary for learning and growth.

Demanding perfectionism is inhumane, to me and to others.

Rest is a requirement, not something to be earned.

Am I a Perfectionist? Is Toxic Productivity my Baseline Standard?

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to consider if you’re a perfectionist or if you’re managing toxic productivity:

  • I ruminate on minor mistakes over days or even weeks (e.g. a misspelled word in a presentation or an email).
  • It takes me 30 minutes or longer to review short emails prior to sending, because I’m quadruple-checking spelling and grammar, etc.
  • I immediately search for / identify errors in emails, presentations, or other outputs, even more frequently than appreciating the overall output
  • It is challenging for me to rest (nap, relax, etc.).
  • I find myself asking “What’s the point?” when it comes to doing something leisurely like taking a walk or reading a book for fun.
  • I must be working to check something off of my To Do List at every moment.
  • I feel worthless or guilty when I don’t complete tasks, or if I’m not “doing” or “completing” a task.

Note: We offer a free 20 point self-assessment here.

Flickering Lights

Toxic productivity and perfectionism have many folx stuck at a perpetual dead-end. Counter-intuitively, these behaviors don’t lead to excellence they lead to hardship. Since our earliest and closest experiences shaped us (and they certainly didn’t elevate us), we need to counter these ingrained habits with new standards. We need to change our thinking about what’s sufficient, and even wonderful.

(1) Reflect on a time when failing to meet your own standards left you with a feeling unworthy or like you weren’t enough? What messages do you recall hearing from yourself or others that validated this harmful sentiment?

(2) What affirmation will you have on hand to promote your ability to:

- rest and not do all of the things

-be okay with good enough rather than perfection, and/or

-embrace errors and failures?

(3) Will you commit to finding moments to rest and just be in a recreational mindset without requiring that you earn it? How will you counter messages that tell you that you need to be accomplishing x, y, z tasks instead of resting?

Heads Up

In our next edition of Street Lights, we’ll continue this discussion by highlighting how perfectionism and toxic productivity show up in the workplace.

As we mentioned last week, RARE is also hosting a workshop on this topic on August 18th! We encourage you to register so that you can be equipped to identify and unlearn toxic productivity and perfectionism.

Community Connection

In the comments, we’d love to hear about any of your own go-to perfectionist or toxically productive behaviors or beliefs. Where do you believe they came from? Do you employ any strategies to counteract them?

Until the next episode…

RARE Coaching & Consulting works with organizations and individuals who are ready to push past their limiting beliefs and remove barriers to equity and inclusion. RARE helps executives and teams to become innovators and leaders in their workplace and industry. Discover how to work with RARE for executive coaching, team development, workshops, speaking engagements, and more.



Aiko Bethea

Aiko is Founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting, a leadership development agency that focuses on emotional intelligence. NYT Best Seller: You Are Your Best Thing.