Perfectionism may be seen as a positive trait that increases one's chances of success. But it can lead to self-defeating thoughts or behaviors that make it harder to achieve one's goals. The trait may also cause conditions like stress or anxiety to develop. Those who strive for perfection out of feelings of inadequacy or failure may find speaking to a therapist to be helpful. This can be one step toward resolving excessive self-criticism.
Perfectionism is often defined as the need to be or appear to be perfect. It is typically viewed as a positive trait rather than a flaw. But Brené Brown, a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, says, "Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth." She goes on to explain that perfectionism is used by many people as a shield. People may use it to protect against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame.
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.
Most people engage in perfectionistic behavior from time to time in certain areas of life. Those who are truly perfectionistic may be unable to perform a task unless they know they can do it perfectly. People with perfectionism tend to view the end product as the most important part of any undertaking. They may focus less on the process of learning or completing a task to the best of their ability. Perfectionists may not see a task as finished until the result is, according to their standards, perfect.
Find a Therapist
There are generally considered to be two types of perfectionistic behavior. These are personal standards perfectionism and self-critical perfectionism. Someone who practices personal standards perfectionism may adhere to a set of standards that motivate them. Others might still consider these standards to be high. Those who have self-critical perfectionistic tendencies, however, are often intimidated by the high standards they have set for themselves. They may not feel motivated by these standards. This can cause feelings that their goals will never become reality. Research suggests that self-critical perfectionism is more likely to lead to negative emotion. These emotions can include distress, avoidance, anxiety, and self-condemnation. Personal standards perfectionism does not tend to have the same effects. This is the case especially when it is not combined with potentially harmful coping methods, such as avoidance coping, or other life stressors.
A 2014 York University study describes a third concept of perfectionism. This is socially prescribed perfectionism. It describes the demand for excellence often placed on those who have jobs that require extreme precision. Some of these include lawyers, medical professionals, and architects. These people were shown to experience more hopeless thoughts, life stress, and a higher risk for self-harm and suicide. Socially prescribed perfectionism also applies to those who are held to high cultural or societal standards. They may strive to meet these unrealistic goals. For example, students are held to high academic standards by their parents. And teens and adults who feel pressure to obtain the type of body purported to be "ideal" by society may develop traits of socially prescribed perfectionism as a result.
Most people want to achieve success. Working hard to achieve one's goals and aiming to excel at pursuits does not always indicate perfectionistic behavior. Instead, people who are perfectionists typically believe that nothing they do is worthwhile unless it is perfect. Instead of being proud of their progress, learning, or hard work, they might constantly compare their work to the work of others. Or they may fixate on achieving flawless output. Even when those who are perfectionistic obtain their desired results, they may still not be satisfied. They may feel that if they truly were perfect, they would not have had to work so hard to achieve those goals.
Some examples of perfectionism might include:
- Spending 30 minutes writing and rewriting a two-sentence email.
- Believing that missing two points on a test is a sign of failure.
- Difficulty being happy for others who are successful.
- Holding oneself to the standards of others' accomplishments, or comparing oneself unfavorably and unrealistically to others.
- Focusing on the end product rather than the process of learning.
- Believing that anything less than a perfect or ideal outcome is not worth achieving.
A number of factors can contribute to the development of perfectionism. Anxiety, insecurity, and fear of disapproval may lead to perfectionist behavior. Children of parents who are perfectionistic are more likely to become perfectionists themselves. Some parents may drive their children to perfectionism. They may encourage them to succeed in every area or push perfection on them to an extent that can be considered abusive. These parents might express disapproval when their children's efforts do not result in perfection.
People with a history of high achievement sometimes feel overwhelming pressure to live up to their previous achievements. This often leads them to engage in perfectionistic behavior. Children who are frequently praised for their accomplishments may feel pressure to keep achieving as they age. This pressure may cause perfectionistic tendencies.
An insecure early attachment may also contribute to self-critical perfectionism. Those who had a troubled attachment with parents may experience difficulty self-soothing. They may have trouble accepting a good outcome as good, if it is not perfect.
In the field of mental health, perfectionism is generally known to have negative consequences. Research shows that perfection has a high correlation to anxiety, depression, high levels of stress, and suicide risk. Those who have perfectionist qualities are also less likely to disclose their pain to others. Doing so could expose them as less than perfect. They may not be as likely to seek treatment for issues resulting from their attempted perfection.
Perfectionism is also often associated with vulnerability and a lack of resilience. It is also linked to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. The trait may cause relationship problems. People who aspire to perfection may often expect that same level of perfection from others around them. Through this expectation, they may become critical of a spouse or partner.
Perfectionism can be measured using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. This scale can provide mental health professionals with insight into the specific sources of perfectionism. A person might be a perfectionist in one domain but not another. Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt developed this scale. They also developed the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale. This scale rates perfectionistic behaviors in self-presentation. It appears to predict psychological distress due to perfectionistic tendencies to a greater extent than the original scale.
Therapy is often helpful in treating perfectionism. It can help those with the condition re-frame their thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy may often be used for this purpose. This may demonstrate that perfection is not the end goal of each undertaking. A therapist who treats perfectionism might avoid focusing on the high standards those in therapy hold themselves to. A person with these tendencies who is simply told to lower their standards is likely to ignore the advice. Instead, therapy typically focuses on treating issues that led a person to develop perfectionistic qualities. These could include fear of failure, a desire to be loved and admired, or a desire to please one's parents.
- Therapy to treat perfectionistic behavior. Lena, 34, is encouraged to enter therapy by her wife. Her wife tells her that she asks too much of their 9-year-old daughter, Abbie. Lena admits to the therapist that she does want Abbie to do well. She often encourages her to try harder in school and at her voice lessons. Lena becomes defensive in the session. She tells the therapist she does not put any more pressure on Abbie than Lena's parents put on her. She claims that she turned out just fine. The therapist notes how Lena's tone changes when she mentions her parents. He questions her further. Eventually, some resentment is uncovered. Lena felt this resentment due to being required to take both ballet and piano lessons as a child while still being expected to maintain top grades in her class. This left her with little time of her own. The therapist encourages Lena to apply these feelings toward her treatment of Abbie. Lena emembers what it felt like to be pushed to succeed. She admits she may have been too pushy. Once Lena begins to be truthful with the therapist, she shares the stress and anxiety she feels as a result of still trying to be perfect. She feels she must be a perfect mother, a perfect employee, a perfect woman. Over several sessions, the therapist works with Lena to reframe these thoughts. Lena puts these thoughts in terms that are more accepting and accommodating of her strengths and weaknesses. As part of her treatment, Lena is also encouraged to share anecdotes of her own mistakes and failures with Abbie. This reinforces the fact that she is not perfect, and that Abbie does not need to be, either.
- Benson, E. (2003). The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor on Psychology, 34(10), 18-18.
- Flett, G., Heisel, M., & Hewitt, P. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18(3), 156-172.
- Perfectionism. (n.d.). University of Illinois Counseling Center. Retrieved from http://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/?page_id=113.
- Rettner, R. (n.d.). The dark side of perfectionism revealed. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/6724-dark-side-perfectionism-revealed.html.
- Scutti, S. (2014, September 26). Perfectionists Are More Likely To Commit Suicide Than The Rest Of Us. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/perfectionists-especially-doctors-architects-and-lawyers-are-higher-risk-suicide-305256.
- Szymanski, J. (2011, October 3). Perfectionism: Healthy or hurtful? Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/is_perfectionism_helping_or_hu.html.