A Sideways View

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The Curse of Perfectionism

When everything must be perfect, can anything ever be good enough?

Is perfectionism a highly desirable trait that ensures high standards and utter reliability—or a psychological handicap indicative of dithering, delay, and delusions? Is it a healthy drive or self-destructive?

Being a perfectionist can be both positive and negative. There is the idea of the nit-picker—someone who looks for the hole in a transparent window. But, then, we also talk about the perfect holiday, the perfect meal and cry with delight when a performance is "sheer perfection." Surely, those who seek to produce perfection in the kitchen or home, studio, factory, or office are admirable people?

Perfectionists value and foster excellence and strive to meet important goals. In certain areas, like sports and science, perfectionism is not just tolerated but encouraged. To some, perfectionism is about high standards, persistence, and conscientiousness. Perfectionists are organized. They have self-imposed high standards, and in the role of parent, teacher, or mentor, they tend to impose those standards on others. Combined with ability and stability, perfectionists can, should, and do, reach their ultimate level of performance.

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But there is a dark side: Perfectionism is seen as a cause and correlate of serious psychopathology. At worst, perfectionists believe they should be perfect—no hesitations, deviations, or inconsistencies. They are super-sensitive to imperfection, failing, and weakness. They believe their acceptance and lovability is a function of never making mistakes. And they don’t know the meaning of "good enough." For them, it's always all or nothing.

Psychologists see perfectionism almost always as a handicap. They see perfectionists as vulnerable to distress, often haunted by a chronic sense of failure; indecisiveness and its close companion procrastination; and shame.

The clinical take on perfectionism is that it can and does involve setting excessively high personal standards and stringently evaluating one’s behavior in light of them. It can also mean imposing one’s standards on others and having equally high (often quite unrealistic) expectations of them. Perfectionists often believe that powerful others—bosses, parents, spouses—expect one to be perfect, in all ways. They are harsh, punitive, unforgiving judges. Perfectionists are rigid.

So where does perfectionism come from? Parents, of course. As always. They may have been critical and demanding. Perfectionists in adulthood live with their parents’ voice, and their standards. The way psychologists measure perfectionism probably best explains how they conceive of it: Measurement is mainly done by questionnaire or interview. And tests are multi-dimensional, trying to capture the full range of issues:

  • One issue is concern over mistakes, which reflects negative reactions to mistakes; a tendency to interpret mistakes as equivalent to failure; and a tendency to believe that one will lose the respect of others following failure: People will probably think less of me if I make a mistake”; “I should be upset if I make a mistake.
  • A second issue is of personal standards, which reflect the setting of very high standards and the importance placed on these high standards for self-evaluation: If I do not set the highest standards for myself, I am likely to end up a second-rate person; I hate being less than the best at things.
  • The tendency to believe that one’s parents set very high goals comprises the third issue, of parental expectations: My parents expected excellence from me; my parents wanted me to be the best at everything.
  • Fourth, the perception that one’s parents are (or were) overly critical constitutes the parental criticism element: As a child I was punished for doing things less than perfect; I never felt like I could meet my parents standards.
  • Another feature is the doubting of actions, which reflects the extent to which people doubt their ability to accomplish tasks.
  • Finally, excessive importance can be placed on order and organization: Organization is very important to me; I try to be a neat person.

So pity the poor perfectionist. They are driven by a fear of failure; a fear of making mistakes; and a fear of disapproval. They can easily self-destruct in a vicious cycle of their own making:

Set unreachable goals → fail to reach them → become depressed and lethargic → have less energy and a deep sense of failure → get lower self-esteem and high self-blame.

Pathological perfectionists are both unhappy and unproductive. They tend to have low self-esteem because they feel they are losers. And there is always the ghost of guilt and its fellow travelers, shame and self-recrimination. Most perfectionists struggle with depression, pessimism, and low self-belief. They can easily become immobilized and without motivation. But when they are at it, perfectionists are marked by their compulsivity, obssessiveness, and rigidity.

There is nothing wrong with setting high standards, but they need to be reachable with effort. It’s all about being OK; human not super-human; among the best, if not the best.

Perfectionism can be a curse, and perfectionists can carry criticism both of themselves and others. By setting standards at the wrong level, they are condemned never to achieve them.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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