In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is perfectionism.
Perfectionism involves self-defeating thoughts and behaviours associated with unrealistic expectations of flawlessness. This causes significant levels of stress and feelings of failure, and it contributes to the use of maladaptive coping mechanisms.
It can involve a combination of enduring personality traits, behaviours, and patterns of thinking. It may be oriented inward towards the self (i.e. expecting ourselves to be perfect) or outward towards others, and it may be “socially prescribed” if we believe that others expect us to be perfect. Associated behaviours may include attempts to portray the self as perfect to others, trying to conceal anything that others might judge as imperfect, or choosing not to disclose to others anything that might indicate one’s imperfections.
What perfectionism is not
Perfectionism is different from healthy striving. With healthy striving, goals may be difficult, but they’re within the realm of possibility and there’s flexibility rather than rigidity. When a goal is reached, this is rewarding and gives a sense of satisfaction, whereas there is no satisfying perfectionism. With healthy striving, enjoying the process is important in addition to the outcome, but perfectionism is all about the outcome.
It’s also different from conscientiousness, which is a personality trait that’s included in the five-factor (Big Five) model of personality.
Sometimes the terms adaptive or healthy perfectionism are used to describe the combination of high standards, conscientiousness, and strong organizational skills.
How it develops
There are several developmental possibilities as to why perfectionism develops, and there appears to be a heritable component.
The parents’ perfectionism hypothesis, which is based on social learning theory, suggests that children observe and imitate their parents’ perfectionism. The parental pressure hypothesis points to parental expectations that the child be perfect and criticism if the child fails to meet those expectations. The parenting styles hypothesis identifies authoritarian, controlling parenting styles as a factor in the development of perfectionism.
Perfectionism tends to include a hefty helping of self-criticism. Other problematic thought patterns include:
- belief that making a mistake equals failure
- fear of mistakes and failure
- preoccupation with actual or potential mistakes
- fear of disapproval
- perceiving that others achieve success easily
- high levels of self-doubt about decisions
Perfectionists tend to have low self-esteem and self-confidence. They may have unrealistic expectations that people are supposed to always be happy, and they may struggle with difficult emotions like frustration, anger, and guilt.
A vicious cycle
Perfectionism often develops into a vicious cycle:
- setting unattainable goals
- failing to achieve those goals
- chronic pressure and failure lead to decreased productivity and effectiveness
- self-criticism, self-blame, decreased self-esteem; possibly anxiety, depression
- think they will do better if they just try harder next time, and this repeats the cycle
Perfectionism is associated with a number of mental disorders, including anxiety disorder, OCD, depression, eating disorders, and body dysmorphic disorder. It can also lead to burnout.
It can cause relationship problems, including marital dissatisfaction, difficulties with intimacy, loneliness, and negative expectations of future relationships.
High stress levels can lead to physical health consequences like sleep difficulties, chronic headaches, and cardiovascular problems.
One of the psychometric tests used by psychologists is the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. There’s a score-it-yourself version available from NovoPsych.
Psychology Today has a 46-question test that gives a brief summary of results for free. I took it, and it said I had a “healthy” level of perfectionism (although it wasn’t clear what the alternatives were). It pointed out that the standards I apply to myself are variable depending on the situation. There was also a very interesting observation:
You don’t feel pressured to live up to society’s expectations of what is “perfect”, which is healthy – however, you may want to consider whether your rejection of societal standards might be jeopardizing your chances for success out of a desire to be a nonconformist.
What to do about it
There are a number of different therapeutic options that can be helpful, including cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, and acceptance-based approaches. Realistic goal-setting, addressing all-or-nothing thinking, and changing self-talk are key targets to work on.
What’s your relationship with perfection?
When I was younger I was never the cool kid. I was more the geeky type. It’s funny, I still remember from grade 7 a friend of mine had decided to tell the boy I was crushing on that I liked him, and he said he didn’t want to be my boyfriend because I was “too smart.” While I got plenty of positive feedback at home, I figured out pretty quickly that if I was going to try to be perfect, I was going to fail. I also figured out that if I was going to try to be a “cool” kid, I was going to fail miserably. Add into the mix that I’m intelligent and capable when it comes to some things and an absolute doofus when it comes to some basic practical things, imperfection was always going to be a better fit for me.
Are you a perfectionist? If so, has it helped or hindered you?
- Antony, M.M. (2015). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for perfectionism.
- Brown, A.D. (2013). The psychology of perfectionism. Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association: Counselling Connect.
- Brown University Counselling and Psychological Services: Perfectionism
- Hewitt, P.L., Ge, S., & Flett, G.L. (2020). “Psychology works” fact sheet: Perfectionism. Canadian Psychological Association.
- James Madison University Counseling Center: Perfectionism
- Stoeber, J., Edbrooke-Childs, J. H., & Damian, L. E. (2018). Perfectionism. In R. J. R. Levesque (Ed.), Encyclopedia of adolescence (2nd ed., Vol. 4, pp. 2732-2739). New York: Springer.
- University of Alberta Counselling and Clinical Services: My Mental Health: Perfectionism
- Overcoming Perfectionism client workbook from Flinders University
- Perfectionism in Perspective workbook from the Centre for Clinical Interventions
- The Overcoming Perfectionism Workbook by Sara Laughed
- The Perfectionist’s Handbook by Jeff Szymanski: accompanying worksheets
- Do You Experience Impostor Syndrome?
- Do You Tend to Self-Sabotage?
- How Does the Inner Critic Get Started?
- The Problem With Perfect… Is That It Doesn’t Exist
- When You Fail, Are You a Failure at a Task? Or as a Person?
Embrace Acceptance: A Guided Journal draws on concepts from acceptance and commitment therapy to help you move towards a place of greater acceptance. You can find it on the Resources page.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.