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Perfectionism is often seen as a positive trait that increases your chances of success, but it can lead to self-defeating thoughts or behaviors that make it harder to achieve goals. It may also cause stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. People who strive for perfection out of feelings of inadequacy or failure may find it helpful to speak with a therapist; this can often help people manage excessive self-criticism.
Perfectionism is often defined as the need to be or appear to be perfect, or even to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection. It is typically viewed as a positive trait rather than a flaw. People may use the term “healthy perfectionism” to describe or justify perfectionistic behavior.
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.
Brené Brown, a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, distinguishes between perfectionism and healthy behavior. She says, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” She explains that perfectionism is used by many people as a shield to protect against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame.
Most people engage in perfectionism from time to time or in certain areas of life. People who are nearly full-time perfectionists may feel the need to achieve perfection constantly. They might also:
- Not be able to perform a task unless they know they can do it perfectly.
- View the end product as the most important part of any undertaking. As a result, they may focus less on the process of learning or completing a task to the best of their ability.
- Not see a task as finished until the result is perfect according to their standards.
- Procrastinate. People with perfectionism may not want to begin a task until they know they can do it perfectly.
- Take an excessive amount of time to complete a task that does not typically take others long to complete.
Most people want to achieve success, but working hard to reach your goals does not always indicate perfectionistic behavior. 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 fixate on achieving flawless output.
Even when people with perfectionistic traits get their desired results, they may still be unsatisfied. They may feel that if they truly were perfect, they would not have had to work so hard to achieve their goals.
Some examples of perfectionism 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.
- Skipping class or avoiding a chore because it is pointless to make an effort unless perfection can be achieved.
- Focusing on the end product rather than the process of learning.
- Avoiding playing a game or trying a new activity with friends for fear of being shown up as less than perfect.
A few distinct types of perfectionism are thought to exist. While these types share similar behaviors, their motives and outcomes often differ.
Personal standards perfectionism: Someone who practices this type of perfectionism may adhere to a set of standards that motivate them. Others might still consider these standards to be high, but they are motivating to the person who sets them. This type of perfectionism is thought to be healthy, as it does not lead to excessive stress or burnout. People with personal standards perfectionism may be less likely to use harmful habits to cope with stress brought on by perfectionism. A person only has this type of perfectionism if their goals make them feel energized and not overwhelmed or paralyzed.
Self-critical perfectionism: This type of perfectionist is more prone to becoming intimidated by the goals they set for themselves rather than feeling motivated. They may more often feel hopeless or that their goals will never become reality. Research suggests that self-critical perfectionism is more likely to lead to negative emotions, such as distress, avoidance, anxiety, and self-condemnation.
Socially prescribed perfectionism: Outlined in a 2014 York University study, this type of perfectionism describes the demand for excellence often placed on people with jobs that require extreme precision, such as lawyers, medical professionals, and architects. Individuals in these professions experienced more hopeless thoughts, stress, and a higher risk for self-harm and suicide.
Socially prescribed perfectionism also applies to people who are held to high cultural or societal standards and who strive to meet these unrealistic goals. For example, students may be held to high academic standards by their parents. 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.
Perfectionism can impact many areas of a person’s life, and these areas are often referred to as domains. Sometimes, perfectionism affects only one domain, while other times, it impacts multiple domains. Below are some areas of life perfectionism can affect.
- In the workplace or at school: People who are perfectionists in school or at work may take longer than others to complete a task. They may also avoid starting a task they do not feel confident in. This is often due to a desire to complete the task perfectly.
- Intimate relationships or friendships: Perfectionism can cause people to place their unrealistic standards on their loved ones, bringing extra stress and pressure into the relationship.
- Physical activity: Sports and athletics often encourage or exacerbate perfectionism. In individual sports, such as gymnastics or track, perfectionism may be especially prevalent, since the athlete is often competing against oneself.
- Environment or surroundings: This may include the need for one’s house or yard to be immaculate at all times. It can cause an individual to spend large amounts of time and energy keeping their immediate surroundings tidy or in line with their aesthetic standards.
- Hygiene and health: Ironically, this type of perfectionism may cause health issues. For instance, someone may stop brushing their teeth because they failed to do so once. This type of perfectionism may also lead to eating disorders like orthorexia nervosa, in which individuals feel compelled to stick to a rigidly healthy diet.
- How one speaks or writes: When a person is perfectionistic about how they speak or write, the quality of their speech or writing may decrease. It may cause them to speak very little or to avoid writing for fear of making a mistake.
- Physical appearance: This type of perfectionism can cause someone to worry excessively about their personal grooming or style. They may take hours choosing what to wear or how to style their hair. Perfectionism surrounding physical appearance can also lead to eating disorders or exercise addiction.
Many factors can contribute to whether perfectionism develops. A few include:
- Frequent fear of disapproval from others or feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.
- Mental health issues like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). While a correlation between OCD and perfectionism has been found to exist, not all people with perfectionism have OCD, and not all people with OCD are perfectionists.
- Having a parent who exhibits perfectionistic behavior or expresses disapproval when their children’s efforts do not result in perfection. Some parents may encourage their child to succeed in every area or push perfection on them to an extent that can be considered abusive.
- An insecure early attachment. People who had a troubled attachment with parents when they were young may experience difficulty self-soothing as adults. They may have trouble accepting a good outcome as good if it’s not perfect.
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, which can also cause perfectionistic tendencies.
If you feel you may have traits of perfectionism that cause you daily distress, know that perfectionistic behavior and habits can be changed. It is possible to learn healthier attitudes about your goals and standards with the help of a trusted, compassionate therapist.
- Flett, G. L., Heisel, M. J., & Hewitt, P. L. (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. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000011
- Hasse, A. M., Prapavessis, H., & Owens, R. G. (2013, June 24). Domain-specificity in perfectionism: Variations across domains of life. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(2013), 711-715. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.719.5924&rep=rep1&type=pdf
- Rettner, R. (2010, July 11). The dark side of perfectionism revealed. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/6724-dark-side-perfectionism-revealed.html
- Scutti, S. (2014, September 26). Perfectionists, especially doctors, architects, and lawyers, are at higher risk of suicide. 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
Last Update: 11-05-2019
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