Discover what perfectionism is and how perfectionism can affect your well-being.
Nobody is perfect, and we all know it. But most of us still desire to achieve excellence in certain aspects of our lives. Striving for excellence is a good quality that can lead to success and fulfillment. Yet, everything works best in moderation, including perfectionism. In this article, we’ll discuss perfectionism and its characteristics, as well as traits and conditions linked to perfectionism, and how being a perfectionist can affect your well-being.
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait associated with striving to be flawless and often involves being critical of imperfections (Flett & Hewitt, 2002). Although perfectionism can be a healthy motivator in moderation, excessive perfectionism may cause stress and diminish the chances of success. Therefore, the ability to distinguish between healthy (adaptive) and unhealthy (maladaptive) perfectionism may help us understand whether we are helping or hurting ourselves.
Let’s start by delving deeper into the components of perfectionism. Generally speaking, perfectionism has two dimensions: perfectionist striving and perfectionist concerns. Perfectionist striving is associated with the pursuit of flawlessness, as well as setting high standards (Stoeber & Otto, 2006; Gade, Schermelleh-Engel & Klein, 2017). On the other hand, perfectionist concerns include aspects such as critical evaluation of one’s self and perceived performance in the light of high standards (Gade, Schermelleh-Engel & Klein, 2017).
A perfectionist typically strives for perfection and is simultaneously concerned about not meeting their expectations. Experts associate perfectionist striving with hopes for success, which can bring about positive outcomes, such as higher levels of performance and self-efficacy (Slade & Owens, 1998). In contrast, perfectionist concerns are associated with fear of failure, which may cause worry and stress (Slade & Owens, 1998). Hence, the balance between these two dimensions may determine whether the perfectionism of an individual is adaptive or maladaptive.
What Is Maladaptive Perfectionism?
Maladaptive perfectionism is associated with elevated perfectionist concern. Therefore, it includes excessive preoccupation and rumination about past mistakes, doubts about achieving goals, fear of failure, and fear of letting others down. These negative emotions may be especially high for things outside the individual’s control. Although adaptive perfectionism can help achieve goals, maladaptive perfectionism can cause severe stress and anxiety (Smith et al., 2018). If not managed, maladaptive perfectionism can hurt the individual’s chances of success and erode their self-esteem and confidence.
All-or-None Thinking: According to a perfectionist, everything can be categorized as either perfect or a failure. Hence, if they notice any mistakes—no matter how minuscule—they tend to see the whole thing as a letdown.
Unrealistic Standards: Perfectionists may have extremely high standards. As a result, they might judge everything through these standards and label almost everything imperfect.
Worry About Failure: Perfectionists strive for excellence and worry that they will fail to reach their goals. Moreover, due to their all-or-none thinking and unrealistic standards, it is often difficult for them to achieve perfection.
Tunnel Vision: When perfectionists are worried about failing at something, everything else may become insignificant.
Focus on Outcomes: Perfectionists are focused on results, they may disregard every aspect of the journey if they fail to reach their goals.
Excessive Criticism: Perfectionists tend to be highly critical of themselves and others due to their unreasonably high standards.
Inability to Deal With Criticism: Perfectionists may struggle when criticized and become defensive instead of seeing it as an opportunity to improve.
Procrastination and Avoidance: Perfectionists may procrastinate if they don’t feel entirely ready to produce the perfect result they would be satisfied with. Similarly, learning new skills or improving existing ones may be frustrating if they don’t achieve mastery and perfection quickly. Hence, they may give up such pursuits early on and avoid specific tasks due to excessive fear of failure.
How Does Perfectionism Affect Well-Being?
Adaptive perfectionism can help people feel successful and fulfilled. However, maladaptive perfectionism may do more harm than good. Why? Because excessive perfectionism involves holding yourself to unreasonably high standards at all times. This constant effort for excellence can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, chronic stress is associated with adverse health outcomes, including high blood pressure, increased resting heart rate, digestive problems, appetite changes, and a weakened immune system (McEven, 1998).
It can also cause other problems such as irritability, fatigue, insomnia, emotional outbursts, and loss of libido (McEven, 1998). In addition to these effects, excessive perfection may also cause people to feel unsatisfied with how their lives have turned out. These perfectionists may even feel depressed after repeatedly failing to meet their own expectations.
Adaptive perfectionism can indeed make us high achievers. Unfortunately, maladaptive perfectionism can take over our lives and make us anxious and miserable. Luckily, it is something we can overcome. Here are some suggestions that may help you.
Setting attainable standards. You might want to question whether your standards are attainable. If your standards are too high, it may be impossible to reach them.
Setting realistic goals. Aiming high is great as long as your goals are achievable.
Be flexible. Learning to be more flexible allows you to adapt to whatever life throws at you and adjust your goals and expectations accordingly.
Reframe the way you perceive mistakes. Mistakes and mishaps can happen no matter how careful and well-prepared you are or how hard you work. Thus, it may help to reframe them as learning or growth opportunities.
Get help. Sometimes we just can’t change our behaviors alone and need help. For instance, you might benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy, which may help you identify and change any negative behaviors or thought patterns associated with perfectionism. It can also help you regulate any negative or destructive thoughts and emotions caused by maladaptive perfectionism.
Let’s face it; we can’t always be perfect. Adaptive perfectionism can give us the push to achieve the best we can. Yet, when we set unattainable goals and overly high standards that we can’t achieve, we might become trapped in a vicious cycle of maladaptive perfectionism and start to feel anxious and lose our self-confidence. Luckily, there are ways to overcome perfectionism. Thus, we can all prevent excessive perfectionism from taking the joy out of our achievements and let us be content with who we are, imperfections and all.
Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 5–31). American Psychological Association.
Gade, J. C., Schermelleh-Engel, K., & Klein, A. G. (2017). Disentangling the common variance of perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns: A bifactor model of perfectionism. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 160.
Slade P. D., Owens R. G. (1998). A dual process model of perfectionism based on reinforcement theory. Behav. Modif. 22 372–390.
Smith, M. M., Vidovic, V., Sherry, S. B., Stewart, S. H., & Saklofske, D. H. (2018). Are perfectionism dimensions risk factors for anxiety symptoms? A meta-analysis of 11 longitudinal studies. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 31(1), 4-20.
Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and social psychology review, 10(4), 295-319.