What Is… Perfectionism

Vicious cycle of perfectionism, starting with setting unattainable goals

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s term is perfectionism.

Perfectionism is “a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high unrealistic goals” according to Brown University’s Counseling and Psychological Services.  It tends to be learned through messages early in life that value is based on achievement, and as a result, self-esteem becomes based on external standards.  

Distorted thinking

Distorted thoughts associated with perfectionism include:

  • fear of mistakes and failure, and a belief that making a mistake equals failure
  • fear that others will not approve
  • all-or-nothing thinking
  • heavily focusing on “shoulds
  • perceiving that others achieve success easily

A vicious cycle

Perfectionism often develops into a vicious cycle:

  1. setting unattainable goals (you might be interested in reading about dead people goals)
  2. failing to achieve those goals
  3. chronic pressure and failure lead to decreased productivity and effectiveness
  4. self-criticism, self-blame, decreased self-esteem; possibly anxiety, depression
  5. think they will do better if they just try harder next time, and this repeats the cycle

Adaptive vs. healthy types

An article on Psych Central differentiated between adaptive/healthy and maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism.  Adaptive perfectionism is associated with high standards, conscientiousness, and strong organizational skills, and tends to be viewed as helpful by those who possess the trait.  This is similar to the Brown University site’s description of “healthy striving”.

Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, is associated with worry, doubt, preoccupation with actual or potential mistakes, and an unhealthy need for control.  This unhealthy type of perfectionism is common in people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to the chair of the psychology department at Ryerson University, perfectionism shows up across multiple different mental health diagnoses in addition to OCD, including anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, and depression. While there’s limited research on the biology of perfectionism, there is some indication that it is moderately heritable.  There are a number of different therapeutic options that can be helpful for perfectionism, including cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, and acceptance-based approaches.

Assessing perfectionism

Common psychological tests used by psychologists to assess perfectionism are the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale and the Hewitt and Flett Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale.  Psychology Today has an online 46-question perfectionism 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.

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?

You may also be interested in the post The Problem With Perfect… Is That It Doesn’t Exist and my review of the book The Anxious Perfectionist.

The Centre for Clinical Interventions has a free Perfectionism in Perspective workbook.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

19 thoughts on “What Is… Perfectionism”

  1. I’m like this. It’s a burden in many areas, but also has saved me from doing even worse things. Forex, now I’m obsessed with writing and spending time with my cat, plus I’ve decided I hate all dating, so I stay home all the time unless I’m with close friends. If I didn’t have these thoughts, I would have joined more dating sites and been with more creeps.

  2. I used to be very perfectionistic (thanks mum /s). This was something I worked on the very first time I was in therapy, and I found being able to lower my standards in some circumstances very helpful in my life. At the end of that I embroidered myself a little wall hanging that said “practice makes better, not perfect” because that was something my therapist had said which stuck in my head. Now I sometimes think I’ve gone too far in the other direction and stopped trying, in more areas than I am happy with. Need to find the right balance again.

    I tried the quiz – not sure that it gives a very accurate picture because the questions are too broad and don’t allow for context. For example, with family, nothing was ever good enough for my mother but my siblings continue to surprise me by how accepting they are of my flaws. And with work, it all depends on what is at stake if you make a mistake. In my job (surgery) of course I’m going to have very high standards and would not hesitate to point out or query it if a colleague makes a mistake, but I also know that sometimes, aiming for absolute perfection can be counterproductive – a saying I hear a lot is “better is the enemy of good”. I guess that is what you’re describing as adaptive perfectionism.

  3. I used to be such a perfectionist. It was terrible because I never could do anything “good enough.” I have learned to calm down, give myself a break and adopt the attitude that perfect is offensive 😃

  4. Really interesting post! I am a perfectionist by nature, and would cry over the odd ‘bad’ grade at school all the time. Since starting university I’ve tried to accept bad grades and look at the bigger picture, and it’s helped me a lot.

  5. Great post and thank you for sharing the perfectionism test. Having just written about my own perfectionism, I was actually quite relieved to also be placed in the ‘healthy perfectionism’ category. Mine varies: I do not set high standards for colleagues or family, yet at times the standards I set for myself are extreme. It has helped me achieve goals, yet it leads me to be critical of myself. I’m working on finding the balance, rather than trying to overcome it.

  6. Regarding your entry about “perfectionism”, only my opinion but there’s way too much perfectionism and need for perfectionism in our world today. Life is unfinished and everything in it is unfinished and that’s not perfect lol . 🙂 artfromperry

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: