Perfectionism Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

If someone is referred to as a perfectionist, it could be considered a compliment or an insult. Perfectionism is an ambiguous categorization, hallmarked by high standards and motivation for success. Being a perfectionist does not necessarily mean that an individual will have negative traits such as neuroticism. But it does not indicate that one will be highly resilient when goals are not met, either. Understanding perfectionism, and the subjective evaluations of perfectionism, is critically important for perfectionists and the clinicians who treat them.

Perfectionism can motivate someone to push themselves further in various domains. Having the desire to achieve something is not a bad thing in and of itself, but when that desire becomes an obsession, it can create problems. Because the definition of perfectionism is so unclear, Jeffrey S. Ashby of the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University decided to evaluate perfectionism based on its positive and negative influences. In a recent exploratory study, Ashby asked 36 college students with significantly high standards how their perfectionist traits affected different areas of their lives. He also looked specifically at how high versus low levels of worry and stress were related to perfectionism.

Ashby found that although some of the participants did not describe themselves as perfectionists, they still had tendencies that would indicate otherwise. For instance, high worriers who reported stress as a result of their perfectionist traits exhibited less resilience than low worriers, even though they may not have considered themselves perfectionists. Although the levels of worry varied, Ashby found that worry was most closely related to high standards in professional, academic, and work domains. Interestingly, other areas, such as personal appearance, religious involvement, self-esteem, and relationships were mentioned as well, but had distinct significance for each participant. Thus, it seems based on the responses that perfectionism and its effects, positive or negative, could depend on the domain it is attached to.

This exploration into perfectionism also revealed a relationship to obsessive-compulsive traits. In particular, the participants with the highest levels of worry and negative outcomes related to their perfectionism also reported the highest levels of obsessive-compulsive habits or rituals. Also, Ashby found that those who experienced the most stress from their perfectionism were the least likely to call themselves perfectionists, and were for the most part unwilling to give that character trait up. “The apparent inconsistencies between the distress attributed to it, the benign evaluations of it, and the general reluctance to give it up, raise intriguing questions about perfectionism,” Ashby said. He believes that this finding suggests a deep-rooted sense of perfectionism that individuals consider inherent or ingrained. Future work should explore this nuance of perfectionism more thoroughly in order to better understand how this classification of perfectionism may impair change in those who experience negative consequences from their behaviors.

Ashby, Jeffrey S., Robert B. Slaney, Christina M. Noble, Philip B. Gnilka, and Kenneth G. Rice. Differences between “normal” and “neurotic” perfectionists: Implications for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling 34.4 (2012): 322-40. Print.

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  • Ken

    November 14th, 2012 at 11:17 PM

    Well I guess it could be taken either way.Perfectionism by itself is a pod thing but some people take it to such a level that it starts to be seen by others as a nuisance or a bad thing.Think it all comes down to the one doing it.

  • katy m

    November 15th, 2012 at 3:41 AM

    I don’t get it- what exactly is so wrong with wanting to do things well? If my name is on something and everyone knows that I did a project or whatever it is I want them to look at it and know that I took a lot of pride into the work that I did and that it shows. I really don’t see anything wrong with doing things right, and I mean really right, the first time. For me there are too many people who are fine with doing things okay, they don’t really take any pride in their work. That bugs me far more than someone who actually makes that effort to do well.

  • Gail

    November 15th, 2012 at 7:32 AM

    So where is the line drawn between perfectionism and OCD? I thought I understood it until I read this and it mentioned that O/C behavior is tied to perfectionism. Once perfectionism evolves into obsessive or compulsive behaviors, isn’t it then OCD? I’m just confused. Sigh.

  • Charles G

    November 15th, 2012 at 7:35 AM

    It has come to my attention in the past that people who are not perfectionists but place a high value on that trait call themselves perfectionists or consider themselves to have OCD. “Oh, that’s my OCD,” is a phrase I often hear from people who are at heart unorganized but want to be hyper-organized. On the other hand, a real perfectionist would never call himself a perfectionist because he views himself as being nowhere near perfect. That’s why he works so hard at doing those so well.

  • Marina.J

    November 16th, 2012 at 7:09 PM

    There can be no perfection in almost anything.Yet we chase this trait like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.We need to realize that although some things are important they may just not be any more important than our health,mental status and collective well being.Chasing perfection and subjecting oneself to so much worrying itself shows how imperfect one is!

  • KRIS

    November 17th, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    It’s only bad if you allow it to interfere with your overall productivity.
    For someone like me that desire to do something and do it well only makes me want to work harder to be a success and does not drag me down.
    I feel like I am not a success when I don’t always strive to do my best.
    That’s what I expect from myself, from my family, and from my coworkers.

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