Can you have too much of a good thing? Like many personality constructs, there are both good and bad aspects of traits. Research on perfectionism suggests that there are both adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism.
Adaptive perfectionists strive for success, tend to complete tasks on time, and have high standards for their work (taking into account their strengths and limitations; i.e., they don’t “overdo” it). Perfectionism becomes maladaptive when the individual becomes overly concerned with “perfect” performance so that nothing becomes “good enough,” and those too-high standards are applied to others’ behavior. Maladaptive perfectionism may cause an individual to avoid taking on tasks for fear of making an error or not being able to complete it up to their lofty standards.
Research by psychologists Hewitt and Flett suggest that there are three forms of perfectionism: Self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed.
Here are items from their Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale that suggest high self-oriented perfectionism:
- I strive to be as perfect as I can be.
- It makes me uneasy to see an error in my work.
- I must work to my full potential at all times.
- I set very high standards for myself.
Other-oriented perfectionism involves holding others to very high standards and is associated with being judgmental and critical of others’ performance. This can lead to the individual not delegating work to others (for fear that they will screw it up), and problems in working relationships.
Other-oriented perfectionism items include:
- I can’t be bothered with people who won’t strive to better themselves.
- I cannot stand to see people close to me make mistakes.
- If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly.
The third type of perfectionism is called socially prescribed and is driven by a sense of pressure to be perfect in everything you do. With socially-prescribed perfectionism, the individual’s self-worth is tied up with a sense of unrealistically high standards that others hold for the individual.
As you might imagine, socially-prescribed perfectionists experience anxiety over their performance, and may obsess on being “good enough to meet society’s standards.” Major setbacks are problematic for socially prescribed perfectionists.
- I find it difficult to meet others’ expectations of me.
- The people around me expect me to succeed at everything I do.
- I feel that people are too demanding of me.
- My family expects me to be perfect.
In short, there is nothing wrong with holding high self-standards for one’s performance. There are benefits to being moderately conscientious and somewhat perfectionistic. However, holding oneself or others to unrealistically high standards of behavior, or feeling that “the world” is demanding you to be absolutely perfect, can be maladaptive and hazardous to your mental health.
Antony, M.M. & Swinson, R.P. (1998). When perfect isn’t good enough. Oakland:New Harbinger.
Hewitt, P.L., & Flett, G.L. (1990). Perfectionism and depression: A multidimensional analysis. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 5, 423-438.