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Not All Types of Perfectionism are Harmful


Perfectionists tend to set lofty goals for themselves and often go to extreme lengths to achieve those goals. It has been suggested that perfectionism can be negative behavior, leading to a sense of self-criticism and failure when goals are not met. However, there are two distinct forms of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. And although maladaptive perfectionism can lead to harsh self-judgments and psychological difficulties, adaptive perfectionism is thought to actually benefit a person’s psychological state. Two other traits, avoidant and anxious attachment styles, can also be impacted by perfectionism. These personality styles influence an individual’s ability to interact with others and play an important role in the overall process of how perfectionism impacts psychological well-being.

Philip B. Gnilka of the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at Kent State University in Illinois recently conducted a study assessing how perfectionism, both maladaptive and adaptive, affected attachment styles and what that effect had on overall psychological well-being. Using a group of 180 college students, Gnilka evaluated levels of depression, life satisfaction, and hopelessness as outcomes of perfectionism and attachment. The findings revealed that adaptive perfectionism was directly predictive of increased life satisfaction and decreased levels of hopelessness, depression, and both avoidant and anxious attachment styles. “Conversely,” said Gnilka, “Maladaptive perfectionism was negatively associated with life satisfaction and positively associated with depression, hopelessness, and both adult attachment styles.”

These findings suggest that counselors whose clients have high levels of perfectionism should explore whether that perfectionism is destructive or constructive to their well-being and how their perfectionism relates to attachment styles. Also, Gnilka points out that highly maladaptive perfectionists who are avoidant or anxious in nature may be at risk for premature therapy termination. It is important for therapists to clarify the therapeutic goals with these clients so that they do not experience feelings of failure during the therapeutic process. Also, many maladaptive perfectionists may have difficulty developing a constructive therapeutic alliance based on their attachment styles. All of these factors should be taken into consideration when a treatment plan is developed and therapy is initiated.

Gnilka, Philip B., Jeffrey S. Ashby, and Christina M. Noble. Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism as mediators of adult attachment styles and depression, hopelessness, and life satisfaction. Journal of Counseling & Development 91.1 (2013): 71-86. Print.

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  • trevor March 11th, 2013 at 11:21 PM #1

    unaware of the ‘kind’ I am but I am pretty crazy about how things are done. whenever there is any event in college I take the lead to make things ‘perfect’. sometimes it gets on my nerves when other people cannot follow what they’re told. a friend told me not everybody can do things on the same level. although it got me thinking, I am perfectly okay with doing everything myself rather than to have others who will screw it up.

    do I have a problem?should I be concerned?

  • jenna March 12th, 2013 at 4:01 AM #2

    I think that you have to look at the client and determine is their drive for perfection something that they are aiming for for themselves or is this something that they are trying to achieve to make someone else happy. I think that if this is the goal that they have set for themselves then that’s fine. They are obviously someone who knows what they want and how to work hard to get it. But if they are trying to be perfect for someone else, than there’s a big problem. You can’t make someone else happy no matter how perfect you may be, so this is something that you definitely have to set for yourself for it not to just drive you over the edge from productive to maladaptive.

  • Jean March 13th, 2013 at 3:59 AM #3

    One of my daughters is by far a perfectionist and it has served her very well. She is smart, motivated, and all around a great kid. I think that her tendency to want to be perfect comes from pleasing herself and not looking for ways to please other people. Personally I find this to be a pretty healthy attitude. She isn’t stressed, she isn’t worried, she just wants to do her best because those are the goals that she has set for herself in life. I have tried talking to her to let her know that she doesn’t have to do it for her dad and me, but I know that for her it really is all about her and her drive. I am ok with that.

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