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Study: Perfectionism Can Mean Worse Performance, Depression

4 steps to break the spell of unrelenting standards schema and perfectionism.

Key points

  • Recent research suggests that perfectionism generally leads to worse outcomes than when people set goals for excellence.
  • Excellencism involves setting good but achievable goals and being engaged but flexible with them.
  • Exploring your self-esteem, understanding your childhood experience, and setting reasonable goals can help people overcome perfectionism.
 Kaspars Grinvalds
Perfectionism is a promise of self-esteem that never gets fulfilled.
Source: shutterstock: Kaspars Grinvalds

Unrelenting standards schema is the feeling of pressure that comes from perfectionism, the feeling that nothing is ever good enough, with the constant demand to do more making you feel flawed. It comes from experiencing unreasonable demands in childhood.

A June 2022 study appearing in Personality and Social Psychology compared perfectionism to just working with set goals for excellence, and found surprising results: Perfectionism leads to worse outcomes, not better. In fact, other studies reveal that, not only does perfectionism bring worse results, it also can make you miserable and that your life is lacking in creativity and less fulfilling (Brown and Beck, 2002).

The good news is that you can transform perfectionism into a striving for excellence that makes you feel good about yourself, rather than drained and self-critical. The trick is starting with the source of your perfectionism: the unrelenting standards schema.

Surprising Results

In the study, “Because Excellencism Is More Than Good Enough: On the Need to Distinguish the Pursuit of Excellence from the Pursuit of Perfection,” (Gaudreau, et al. 2022), the authors demonstrate two huge points:

  1. There is a difference between being a perfectionist and striving for excellence.
  2. Those who strive for excellence, and stop when they hit their goals, perform better than perfectionists.

So what’s the difference between perfectionism and “excellencism?” (Guadreau, et al. 2022 p. 1118)

  • Perfectionism means being stuck with standards that are always too high, and anxiously focusing on them.
  • Excellencism is about setting good but achievable goals, and being engaged but flexible with them, and then moving on to other tasks once they are achieved.

Sounds good, right? Who doesn’t want to be on “team excellencism?” Well, in the hands of a perfectionist, the “excellencism” idea pretty quickly just turns into more perfectionism, with a new word. The authors very appropriately explore the next challenge: how to hold high standards without drifting back into perfectionist anxiety. It turns out that excellencism speaks for itself. The authors studied college students with perfectionist tendencies and compared them to non-perfectionist, flexible, but well-performing peers. The results clearly showed that excellencism builds motivation, while perfectionism makes life harder.

Student grade point averages were the proof that:

If you have high, but realistic standards, reach them, and move on, you have better results, feel better about yourself, and are motivated to continue. If you are a perfectionist, nothing ever feels good enough, and motivation suffers, leading to worse results.

If you can just have set standards and let go of the perfectionist idea that you can always do better, you will see better results. You have proof, which keeps you going on a positive feedback loop.

The problem is, you feel perfectionism in your body, like a restlessness and dread, and worry you aren’t good enough, and you become addicted to trying harder. So how to overcome that feeling?

Where Perfectionism Comes From: Unrelenting Standards Schema

The core problem with perfectionism is that you never feel good enough. And trying to be better is a promise you make to yourself that one day you’ll feel relief, and good about yourself. The problem is, that day never comes!

This experience may come from a childhood where you were somehow made to believe that you weren’t good enough just as you are. This may have happened because you had parents with unrelenting standards themselves. It may have happened because unreasonable demands were put on you, like having to provide for yourself or younger siblings in ways you weren’t ready to. It may have happened because approval felt transactional: you got praise only when you succeeded, never for just being you.

Recent studies show that for AAPI and Latino individuals, pressure to perform is a more engrained part of family culture, where your performance reflects on both you and your family, which can lead to perfectionism (Fung, et al. 2022) Also, African Americans may struggle with an idea of inferiority broadcast in the atmosphere of anti-black racism, leading to a perfectionism only complicated by structural violence (Elion, et al. 2012).

Unrelenting standards schema begins at the pre-verbal level, as you take in the non-verbal case of attachment, before you are fully comfortable with expressing yourself through talking. This means that perfectionism is felt in the body, as much as it goes along with perfectionist thinking.

4 Steps to Overcome Perfectionism

  • Trust what your body tells you. Remember, the key to overcoming perfectionism is self-esteem. As long as you feel secure, that you want the best possible outcome for yourself because it will make you proud of yourself, you’re good. But if you’re feeling anxiety and dread, that’s your body telling you you’re being a perfectionist.
  • Understand your perfectionism story. What childhood experience had you turning to perfectionism to overcome feeling inadequate? What did “little you” go through? Try journaling this story, and use it to remind yourself that you are entitled to more.
  • Using the “excellencism” approach, try making a list of reasonable goals, with clear markers of success, and then stick to them. Once you hit the goal, remind yourself you can move on to other accomplishments, rather than getting stuck on perfect.
  • It takes practice. You have to practice “exposure therapy” with the feeling of anxiety around letting things go. Know that you will feel like you have to do more, and it takes practice tolerating that feeling, not acting on it, and seeing that you can survive. Over time it gets easier.

This post is one part of the Schemas: An Introduction series of 18 posts, covering each of the 18 schemas outlined originally by Jeffrey Young. You can check out this post for more background on the definition of schemas, which I call the” DNA” of your personality.

References

Audrey A. , Wang, Kenneth T. , Slaney, Robert B. , & French, Bryana H. “Perfectionism in African American Students: Relationship to Racial Identity, GPA, Self-Esteem, and Depression” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Vol 18(2), Apr 2012, 118-127 Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 2012 American Psychological Association 2012, Vol. 18, No. 2, 118–127 1099-9809/

Brown, G. P., & Beck, A. T. (2002). Dysfunctional attitudes, perfectionism, and models of vulnerability to depression. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 231–251). American Psychological Association.

Fung, J., Cai, G., & Wang, K. (2022, August 18). “Personal and Family Perfectionism Among Asian and Latinx Youth”. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cdp0000555

Gaudreau, Patrick , Schellenberg, Benjamin J. I. , Gareau, Alexandre , Kljajic, Kristina , & Manoni-Millar, Stéphanie “Because excellencism is more than good enough: On the need to distinguish the pursuit of excellence from the pursuit of perfection.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 122(6), Jun 2022, 1117-1145

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