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One Reason Being a Perfectionist Isn’t All Bad

New research shows that perfectionism has a bright side and a dark side.

RdpUSA/Labeled for reuse
Source: RdpUSA/Labeled for reuse

Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist? Typically, perfectionists strive to achieve perfection by setting extraordinarily high standards of performance and achievement. Like every multidimensional personality trait, perfectionism is on a spectrum with many variations and extremes.

Perfectionism has pros and cons. On the dark side, maladaptive perfectionism manifests as a compulsive and neurotic drive to achieve unrealistic and unattainable levels of perfection based on “perfectionistic concerns." Many studies have found that the stress created by perfectionistic concerns can contribute to health problems such as: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, and early mortality.

On the bright side, adaptive perfectionism manifests as a desire to achieve personal bests without beating yourself up if you come up short. This type of perfectionism is categorized as “perfectionistic strivings” and is a positive characteristic in many instances.

As an ultra-endurance athlete, I learned to walk a tightrope between “perfectionistic concerns” and “perfectionistic strivings." For example, when I set out to break a World Record by running farther on a treadmill in 24 hours than any human being had ever done before, I knew the feat would require me to run at least 150 miles non-stop. I also knew that if had too many concerns about the outcome I'd choke. I was able to strive for "perfection" without feeling stressed out and went on to break the record.

As an athlete, I always had a laissez-faire attitude on race day. I bring this to my writing as well. I try my best as a writer, but don't beat myself up if my writing isn't perfect. I consider myself to be a mediocre writer in a way that is liberating. I have very high standards but also very low expectations, if that makes sense. As Alice Walker said, "Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise." I'm definitely not expecting to win any Pulitzer prizes, so if I communicate an idea effectively to the general reader that counts as a victory for me as a writer.

Perfectionistic Concerns vs. Perfectionistic Strivings

In a maladaptive way, I could have set myself up for failure by putting excessive pressure on myself during training or choking during high pressure athletic events. Over decades of practice in sport and competition, I learned how to find a sweet spot of co-existing opposites in which I simultaneously wanted to win more than anything in the world, but also didn’t really care if I won or lost. I know it sounds like a paradox, because it is.

The older I get, the more I realize that the secret to success often lies in mastering paradoxes. Perfectionistic strivings fall into this category because ideally you're striving to be perfect, but can embrace your imperfections and let failures roll off your back. Through practice, perfectionistic strivings can lead to a positive cycle that creates a healthy upward spiral of self-improvement.

Anytime that I didn't "win" in sports, I would let it go in milliseconds after the event by saying, "Oh well, c'est la vie. I tried my best." I never dwelled on my shortcomings in a way that was demoralizing. In fact, my failures motivated me to work harder towards improvement. I framed my failures as learning experiences and opportunities for growth. Luckily, from years of feeling less than as I teenager, I developed a thick skin and the resilience to bounce back after defeat and try harder the next day.

There is one caveat here, perfectionistic strivings can create a vicious cycle of always feeling “a day away from where you want to be." Perfectionistic strivings have a dark underbelly, too... but ultimately can lead to fulfillment and encourage the humanist aspects of optimizing your full potential. For more on this check out my Psychology Today blog post, "Peak Experiences, Disillusionment, and the Joy of Simplicity."

Are Our Children in a Race to Nowhere?

Last night, I watched “Race to Nowhere: Transforming Education From the Ground Up” on Netflix. This documentary is a call to action for parents, educators, and policymakers to evolve our current thinking about how we prepare our children for success. I love this movie!

As the father of a 7-year-old, I worry about the pressure and “perfectionistic concerns” being projected onto our children. The ideas and message of this movie hit a raw nerve in me. Like my daughter, I grew up in zip codes full of extremely “successful people” based on median family income. The air that we breathed and the water we swam in was consciously and subliminally saturated with expectations of over-achievement.

As a student at Choate, which is a boarding school in Connecticut, I almost imploded due to a confluence of subpar standardized test scores, low grades, feeling like a black sheep, and isolation. I was a rebellious gay teenager who came out in the early 1980s. I didn’t fit the Preppy Handbook cookie-cutter and always felt like an outsider in the stuffy Brooks Brothers boarding school environment of Wallingford.

Luckily, my mom embraced all the ways that I was different as a teenager and had the foresight to steer me in the direction of a college that fit my gestalt and catered to my strengths. Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts is my alma mater. Hampshire doesn’t have any tests or grades and embraces people who don’t fit a mold.

The Hamphsire College motto is “Non Satis Scire” which means "to know is not enough.” What I love about the pedagogy of Hampshire is that it nurtures “perfectionistic strivings”—in the form of a passion to push the envelope intellectually and a lifelong curiosity to learn—without any of the perfectionistic concerns fueled by having to take a test and get a grade.

I credit the Hampshire philosophy with giving me the tools to excel in sports and strive to connect new ideas in useful ways through my writing. As an athlete and writer, I have a tendency towards perfectionistic strivings, but never really feel perfectionistic concerns. In the long run, research shows that perfectionistic concerns can sabotage your odds of success at work, in school, and on the playing field.

A July 2015 study, "Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis," confirmed that perfectionistic concerns can lead to stress, burnout, and potential health problems. The findings were published online in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

This study was the first meta-analysis of the relationship between perfectionism and burnout. The researchers analyzed the findings from 43 previous studies conducted over the past 20 years. The research was led by Andrew Hill, an associate professor of sport psychology at York St. John University in England. In a press release, Hill described the findings saying,

Perfectionistic concerns capture fears and doubts about personal performance, which creates stress that can lead to burnout when people become cynical and stop caring. It also can interfere with relationships and make it difficult to cope with setbacks because every mistake is viewed as a disaster.

People need to learn to challenge the irrational beliefs that underlie perfectionistic concerns by setting realistic goals, accepting failure as a learning opportunity, and forgiving themselves when they fail. Creating environments where creativity, effort and perseverance are valued also would help.

Hill found that that perfectionistic concerns had the strongest negative effects in contributing to burnout in the workplace, possibly because people have more social support and clearly defined objectives in education and sports.

Conclusion: Perfectionistic Strivings Can Help You Optimize Your Potential

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. Perfectionistic strivings can help someone optimize his or her full potential. On the flip side, perfectionistic concerns almost always backfire and can lead to burnout and self-defeat.

Clearly, it's a thin line between striving and not being concerned about outcomes if you are driven towards any type of perfectionism. It's a nuanced tightrope walk full of potential paradoxes. Such as, "Try your absolute best, and give it everything you've got... But it doesn't matter if you win or lose." This can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around—especially when you're my daughter's age.

Unfortunately, I believe that the Common Core standards and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) actually leave too many children behind by labeling them academic failures early on and constantly putting too much emphasis on perfectionistic concerns.

As parents, teachers, and policymakers we need to nurture and encourage every child to optimize his or her unique human potential, while never making anyone feel less than if he or she isn’t a superachiever. I was a terrible student until college but turned out OK. I believe this outcome is possible for anyone if they aren't derailed at a young age by perfectionistic concerns.

Vicki Abeles and the team that created Race to Nowhere have a forthcoming book, Beyond Measure. The book features bright spots in education: stories of students, parents, educators, and institutions pushing back on the status quo by making changes big and small, in their homes and at school.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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