Sunday, December 16, 2012

Is perfectionism always a bad thing?

Perfection is an ideal faultlessness, a state of being complete and correct, such that nothing is wanting.  It is the highest attainable state or degree of excellence.  Perfection is a standard to which many strive, although most fall short.  I believe this is, in part, because perfection means different things to different people.  What constitutes perfection is quite subjective and therefore depends on who you ask. 

There tends to be general agreement that while a person may achieve perfection (however it is defined) on a given occasion, no one attains perfection in all venues at all times.  Human beings are falliable creatures; we all make mistakes.  Thus, we are challenged to accept a fundamental truth about human nature: nobody's perfect.

Some people have more difficulty accepting this than others.  These are people who believe perfection can and should be always within reach; we call them perfectionists.  The negative implications of perfectionism have been studied at length and are well documented.  It has been associated with chronic feelings of failure, unwarranted guilt, lack of self-worth, pervasive self-doubt, indecisiveness, excessive self-criticism, procrastination, and low self-esteem.  Perfectionism has also been linked to the development and maintenance of several mental health disorders, to include major depression, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsiveness, anoerexia, and alcoholism. 

While no one disputes the negative consequences associated with perfectionism, there are some who insist it has positive implications as well.  Adherents to this school of thought distinguish between "normal," "adaptive," or "healthy" perfectionism and "pathological," "maladaptive" or "unhealthy" perfectionism.  They argue that "healthy" perfectionism is often beneficial and its development should be nurtured and encouraged. 

So is there a "healthy" perfectionism?  Or is perfectionism always pathological? The answer depends on how you define perfectionism.  Those who promote the potential benefits of "healthy" perfectionism define the concept differently than those who insist it is always pathological. 

Proponents of "healthy" perfectionism divide the phenomenon into several dimensions:

1. The consistent setting of very high standards for performance and achievement.

2. Extreme and excessive concern about making mistakes.  Mistakes are equated with failure. 

3. Chronic self-doubt, causing one to second guess oneself and one's decisions.  There are frequent doubts
    regarding the adequacy of one's work and/or performance.

4. Strong emphasis on and desire for organization in all aspects of life.

We can clearly see that not all of these dimensions have negative implications and that some of them have the potential to be quite beneficial.  In particular, having high standards for oneself and being exceptionally well organized are qualities commonly labeled as assets.  Together these characteristics (collectively referred to as "perfectionistic strivings") are associated with high levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, endurance, positive affects, life satisfaction, active coping styles, and achievement. 

In contrast, the dimensions of self doubt and conern about mistakes (collectively referred to as "perfectionistic concerns") are associated with increased incidences of obsessive compulsive disorders, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, procrastination, and an increased risk of suicide. 

When conceived of this way, it is clear that certain aspects or dimensions of perfectionism are adaptive and that others are maladaptive; it would be difficult to argue otherwise. 

Still, there are those who maintain that perfectionism in any form is never a good thing.  Adherents to this school of thought define perfectionism thus: a personality style characterized by the setting and compulsive pursuit of unrealistically high standards and/or unattainable goals coupled with the tendency to be over-critical in evaluations of one's own behaviors and efforts.  The psychopathology is inherent in the definition.  They assert that any "healthy" dimensions of perectionism cannot truly be called perfectionism, as perfectionism only refers to that which is unhealthy or maladaptive. 

Personally, I am concerned about beliefs and behaviors that interfere with personal functioning.  In my next post, I'll talk about strategies for overcoming (or at least coping more effectively with) this kind of perfectionism.


  1. I am grateful to know that I am not perfect. I am detail oriented but not anywhere close to perfect.

    I hurt like hell right now I must confess. I do enjoy reading your journal. I have been going through some marital strife and all the good stuff that comes with watching a 31 almost 32 year old relationship die....

    All will be well however. I have help.


  2. Perfectionism when lived, leads one to want others to live up to the same high standards they think they carry. This unrealistic expectation destroys many relationships. I think because they can't rest in what is. Truly thinking one has real control over anything leads to disillusionment. I find the truly spontaneously happy people let most expectations fall away, their nose is not in it all. Giving rise to real freedom. My two cents having some of that perfection gene born out of alcoholic chaos at home when growing up.

    1. You're right - perfectionism definitely destroys relationships.

  3. i pretend to have a perfect life. hehe.

    happy holidays!

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