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4 Troubling Signs of Perfectionism

A package of these characteristics indicates persnickety has become pervasive.

Key points

  • Perfectionism exists on a spectrum, from a task-specific quirk for most to an all-consuming defining characteristic for others.
  • Someone with rigid attention to rules, morals, details, and painstaking decision-making can make for unbearable company.
  • Pathological perfectionism is a means of intrinsic, environmental, and interpersonal control.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Many of us are seasoned with the quirk of "good enough doesn't suffice" when it comes to details of, say, a hobby, career performance, or hygiene. For others, however, perfectionism is not a quirky seasoning; it's the main ingredient. If actions aren't bull's-eyes, they don't count.

Imagine going from a pinch of potent spice adding subtle enhancement to the dish to the potent spice being the main course. Now you have an idea of how arrestingly distasteful perfectionism as an interpersonal style can be.

Learning to detect this type of personality can help prevent some unsavory relational experiences like those Allie encountered with Niles (names disguised):

Niles never seemed to be satisfied with the results of his efforts, no matter what they pertained to, nor with the efforts of his two children. His wife, Allie, recalled that initially it seemed he was simply driven to be his best. After they married, Niles's need for routines and schedules began interfering with their relationship. He could never be flexible about Saturday being his "work around the house" day, impeding their social activity. His preference for perfect task completion often kept him at work late, a real headache for Allie once they had children. Allie explained that there was no escaping his rigidity. Even vacations were becoming unbearable.

She recounted that their vacations once involved a lot of sightseeing, so scheduling was helpful. Once they had kids, they started taking beach vacations, which seemed like it should be a leisurely time. Niles, however, kept just as rigid a schedule for arriving, leaving, meals, putting on sunblock, and how long the kids should stay in the water. In addition, part of the afternoons got dedicated to soccer practice on the beach, to make sure the children were polished, even though they were only 3 and 5.

Niles presented a classic case of an obsessive-compulsive personality, which affects around 8 percent of the general population (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition [DSM-5], 2013; Diedrich and Voderholzer, 2015). As written about in "OCD or OC Personality?," having a personality condition and "Axis 1" disorder with the same name can be confusing, but they're distinctly separate afflictions. In a nutshell, the former is a matter of controlling extremely anxiety-provoking, intrusive, thoughts/images/impulses by an almost superstitious behavior protocol; the latter is a rigid interpersonal style based on control and perfectionism.

Why Perfection?

Personality authorities (e.g., Yudofsky, 2005; Millon, 2011; McWilliams, 2013; Shannon, 2016) note there's a distinct need for perfection characterizing an OC personality, and it's a large part of the structure supporting this maladaptive interrelational style. It stands to reason, for both categorical clarity and utilitarian personality conceptualization, that "perfectionistic personality" may be a more rational term than OC, which has been alluded to by some personality authorities (e.g., Ayearst et al., 2012; Shannon, 2016). Unfortunately, it failed to be changed in the recent DSM-5-Text Revision.

As you'll read below, perfectionistic is more accurately descriptive of the core features of this personality style. Essentially, people like Niles are "obsessively, compulsively" perfectionistic.

Of perfection in personality, Millon (2011) described the following:

Most central to the psychic makeup of these (perfectionistically reliable) patients is the dread of making mistakes and the fear of taking risks. There is a persistent reworking of things, a feeling of never being satisfied with the results of their efforts, and a concomitant anxiety of being unprepared for any new task. Their scrupulous attention to perfection reflects a deep sense of inadequacy, of potential failure, and the ultimate exposure of inner deficiencies and socially untenable impulses. These personalities are meticulous and fastidious, not because the tasks facing them require perfectionistic behavior, but because they anticipate criticism and fear derogation.

4 Realms of Pathological Perfection

Clearly, any one of the following can create havoc in a relationship, but any combination of these, the four of which do not unusually occur together, can lead to unbearable circumstances.

1. Perfectly disciplined routines and schedules.

Perhaps the most obvious observable feature is a rigid attention to routines and schedules for self and others within their grasp. For example, like for Niles, one may believe that certain days of the week are designated for one activity. Period. But it doesn't stop there. The day is delineated into carefully metered activity windows, whether at work or play. Even if they are immensely enjoying themselves at, say, a concert that started late, and they'd like to stay another half hour to see the encore, that would put them in bed late, disrupting the entire schedule.

A perfect routine helps one to know what to expect and, thus, makes one feel in control. Any deviance from routine encourages a feeling of complete disarray, which engenders intolerable angst because the safety of knowing what to expect has dissolved. Hard-nosed routine is also considered a sign of discipline and dedication, badges of self-control that surely others will hold the person in high regard for and, thus, is believed to be a barrier to others seeing the person as weak.

Routines and schedules also keep others contained and on task, such as children or employees. Since these people represent the perfectionist, they, too, must be disciplined and polished. It is easy to see how this can become overbearing and create interpersonal complications.

2. Overattentiveness to details.

I once met someone whose motto was, "Why settle for pretty good when you can make it perfect?" The old phrase "the devil is in the details" was never more relevant for this individual who was bedeviling to himself and others when it came to details. Never focused on the experience of his work and any intrinsic satisfaction, his motivation was creating something spotless and polished that finely represented him. Not only work, but hobbies, were stressful endeavors.

The activity is merely a vehicle for showcasing perfect performance. Students with this tendency, for example, may see paper writing not as an opportunity to convey their understanding but as a chance to exhibit control. If an assignment calls for an approximately 500-word essay, they might agonize over creating an exactly 500-word essay, with perfectly structured, equal-sized paragraphs. While this may make the paper two days late, they rest easy in the satisfaction of knowing it is impeccable.

In a similar vein, pathological perfectionists often do not make good project partners in school or work because they'll demand control of the task, so details are attended to "correctly."

3. Unusual devotion to rules and morals.

The next in this perfectionist quad is strict adherence to rules, morals, and scrupulosity. In the spirit of seeking guaranteed outcomes to reduce angst, it only makes sense that "coloring within the lines" serves as a guide for consistency, a sign of perfection in itself.

Meanwhile, surgically precise attention to morals, according to McWilliams (2013), can help the moralizer contrast themselves as superior to others. Clearly, this is another feather in their cap of perfection, and it may help reduce, as Yudofsky (2005) puts it, the merciless self-criticism such people are prone to. Ultimately, this characteristic flows from the schema, "If I follow the rules and am morally precise, no one [i.e., the perfectionist] can judge me."

4. Analysis paralysis.

Finally, while not a technical term, it gets to the point. Individuals of a perfectionist bent have an immense inability to make decisions for fear of making the wrong decision. All angles must be compared and contrasted before action is taken on just about anything. They will forgo practicality or comfort, for example, for the sake of satisfying the need to believe they unquestionably made the perfect choice.

Someone who needs a new air conditioner during a heat wave, for instance, may ceaselessly wrestle with which brand/model to purchase. They not only talk to the salesperson, but they also spend hours researching Consumer Reports and Internet reviews. All practicality is lost when there is scrutiny of minor details, such as one being more visually appealing, but another's energy efficiency may save a few dollars on the electricity bill. To the perfectionist, a couple of days of suffering in the heat while making the right choice, however, is a small price to pay.

Disclaimer: The material provided in this post is for informational purposes only and not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any illness in readers or people they know. The information should not replace personalized care from an individual's provider or formal supervision if you’re a practitioner or student.

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References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Ayearst, L. E., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2012). Where is multidimensional perfectionism in DSM-5? A question posed to the DSM-5 personality and personality disorders work group. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 3(4), 458–469. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026354

Diedrich, A., Voderholzer, U. (2015). Obsessive–compulsive personality disorder: A current review. Current Psychiatry Rep 17(2). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-014-0547-8

McWilliams, N. (2013). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). Guilford,

Millon, T. (2011). Disorders of personality: Introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal (3rd ed). Wiley.

Shannon, Joseph W. (2016, September 29). Reasoning with unreasonable people: Focus on disorders of emotional regulation. Brattleboro Retreat, Brattleboro, Vermont.

Yudofsky, S. (2005). Fatal flaws: Navigating destructive relationships with people with disorders of personality and character. American Psychiatric Publishing.

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