Would you like to be able to answer yes to the following questions? Would you like your partner to answer yes? Your children?
Do you prefer to be organized and disciplined? Is neatness important to you? Do you have high standards and expectations of yourself? Do you have a need to strive for excellence? Sounds good, but…
What if the questions were these instead…
Do you often feel disappointment after completing a task, knowing you could have done better? Does your best just never seems to be quite good enough? Even when you have performed well, do you feel little satisfaction at your victory?
Perfectionism is a personality trait that psychologists have been studying for the past thirty years. It is used to describe people who set extremely high standards for themselves, striving to be the best at whatever goal they are pursuing. It sounds good–except when it’s not. The big difference is whether the goal is to excel (potentially attainable with dedication and hard work) or to be perfect (unattainable since no one succeeds without trial and error).
Although most people wish they had at least a small dose of perfectionism, there is a fine line between healthy perfectionism and its maladaptive form. Too much of this trait leads to setting goals that are excessively high and is usually accompanied by hypercritical, unrealistic expectations of self and others. No surprise it can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and a slew of other problems.
Psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett, believe that perfectionism comes in different shapes and sizes, each associated with different kinds of problems. Although some of the associated issues may be less severe than others, no perfectionism is trouble proof. The three types they have identified are self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism.
The self-oriented first types focus their need for perfection on themselves; the second type, other-oriented perfectionists, focus their irrational expectations on others and judge them accordingly; and the third type, the socially prescribed perfectionists, set unrealistic standards because they believe that other people (family, friends or co-workers) only value them if and when perfect.
Since all humans have a habit of making mistakes along the way, these beliefs engender constant anxiety. Even when perfectionists do well, they can end up feeling even more pressure. Why? Because they need to keep performing well so as not to let down their loved ones.
Procrastination: Since perfectionists will never be satisfied with the end product, many try to control anxiety by not starting something in the first place (since it will never be perfect anyway, goes the thinking). They are also so afraid of failure that it can be paralyzing.
Black and white thinking: Another problem with this mindset is that things are good or bad, a success or failure, the best or the worst. In fact, most of life lands in the gray zones. Great movies can get bad reviews, less skilled athletes can win medals, art can be beautiful but not get sold.
Critical inner voice: It is common for perfectionists to call themselves derogatory names like stupid, ugly, good for nothing, lazy, fat, etc. If other-focused, all these criticisms can be voiced or even screamed at children, husbands and wives, co-workers, or friends.
Focus on external outcomes rather than internal rewards or the process: If someone’s only goal is to be perfect, he can miss a lot of the fun along the way. Working towards a goal can include pleasures of learning new things, meeting new people, mastering small goals while journeying towards the end point. Instead, the perfectionist gets so obsessed with the goal that she is unable to relax into the present moment.
If you see yourself in these descriptions, don’t lose hope. You can learn to quiet the negative voices. As with any other problem, the first step is to acknowledge that the way you are thinking about yourself or your loved ones is causing undue worry and suffering. There are excellent resources for self-help, group support and psycho-education here on PsychCentral and elsewhere.
Or listen to the song, Anthem, by Leonard Cohen, and take a new look at the value of imperfections–yours, mine, and everyone’s.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
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Last reviewed: 12 Aug 2013