At one time or another, haven’t we all sought perfection?
A perfect score on a test, a flawless presentation, or the ultimate date.
While aiming for the best can be helpful, perfectionism as a trait can be damaging, putting us at risk of mental and physical illness (Thomson, 2019).
Perfectionism is a complex characteristic that according to experts, can be “adaptive (healthy, positive, functional) or maladaptive (unhealthy, negative, dysfunctional)” (Stoeber, 2018, p. 22.)
This article explores the drives and concerns associated with perfectionism, along with theories that offer insight into this fascinating personality trait.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
- What Is Perfectionism? 7 Examples
- 10+ Traits and Symptoms of Perfectionists
- Causes of Perfectionism: 3 Psychology Theories
- Can Perfectionism Be Dysfunctional?
- Perfectionism, Fear of Failure, & Procrastination
- Link Between Burnout and Perfectionism
- Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Perfectionism? 7 Examples
We are constantly subject to evaluation, criticism, correction, and rewards throughout our lives. Society repeatedly tells us we have or have not done well (Antony & Swinson, 2009).
Not only do we experience increasing demands from the outside, but “many people feel pressure from within to succeed or perform at a certain level” (Antony & Swinson, 2009, p. 16). Such expectations and the apparent need for perfection can be exhausting and, over time, damaging.
While it is not wrong to wish to improve performance and meet high standards, it is not always helpful to view anything that falls short of perfection as unacceptable.
After all, “perfectionism is a common personality trait that can affect all domains of life” (Stoeber, 2018, p. 27.) It is also complex and multidimensional, having positive and negative effects on who we are and how we think, feel, and behave.
While setting high standards and aiming for success can help us deliver on our goals and improve performance, perfectionism can drive us toward impossible expectations (Thomson, 2019).
Examples of perfectionism
Alice Boyes (2020) suggests perfectionism has the potential to limit productivity in the workplace:
- Reluctance to prioritize can mean it is difficult to assign some tasks to the “unimportant” pile. Perfectionists typically want to control everything and can find it hard to let go of minor details and the non-essential in order to focus on what is needed.
- Obligation to over-deliver can result in the continual need to beat expectations and excel at everything. This persistent expectation is linked to feelings of anxiety, a lack of confidence, and the nagging doubt of imposter syndrome.
- Avoidance of failure can prevent perfectionists from starting positive habits (paralysis by analysis) or striving for a goal unless 100% sure of success. Where certainty is lacking, taking no steps can seem preferable to the possibility of failing.
Psychologists often consider perfectionism along two dimensions – strivings and concerns – creating a two-factor model (Stoeber, 2018; Antony & Swinson, 2009):
- Perfectionist strivings are a combination of (exceedingly) high personal standards that perfectionists set themselves:
- Self-oriented perfectionism (setting impossibly high standards for yourself)
- Other-oriented perfectionism (setting impossibly high expectations for others)
- Socially prescribed perfectionism (assuming others have expectations of you that are impossible to meet)
- Perfectionist concerns combine fears and worries over making mistakes. They focus perfectionists’ attention on endless doubts about almost everything, from actions taken, parental expectations, and criticism to socially prescribed demands.
There are also important aspects of perfectionism to consider outside of the two-factor model. Two further examples include the following (Stoeber, 2018):
- Perfectionist self-presentation is essential to adjustment and maladjustment, and affects the therapeutic process and interpersonal relationships.
Such self-presentation involves two aims:
- Promoting the impression of being perfect (promotion focused)
- Preventing the impression of being less than perfect (prevention focused)
- Perfectionist cognitions are automatic thoughts that reflect the need for perfection. Such automatic and involuntary thinking can stop decision making and delay actions.
10+ Traits and Symptoms of Perfectionists
“Personality traits are stable characteristics that make people who they are” and “affect behavior across situations and over time” (Antony & Swinson, 2009, p. 20).
While there are several ways to define and describe perfectionism, most theories identify the following three features (or traits) of perfectionists (Antony & Swinson, 2009):
- Adopting standards that are extremely difficult or impossible to meet.
- Setting expectations so high that they damage, rather than enhance, their performance.
- The presence other mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
Symptoms of perfectionism
Unreasonably high standards and expectations can be harmful throughout our lives, damaging enjoyment and performance and preventing engagement across many situations, including (Antony & Swinson, 2009):
- Career and educational performance
Perfectionists at work and in school settings often set overly strict standards for themselves and others, leading to too much time measuring and assessing, and resulting in delays and missed deadlines.
Perfectionist managers may become angry when an employee arrives late, even when they complete extra hours later in the day. Students who set themselves too high standards may feel depressed unless they are at the top of the class.
- Neatness and aesthetics
Extreme neatness and cleaning may leave perfectionists with little time for other activities or may hold them back from beginning an activity if it may leave a mess. An excessive tidiness focus can lead to upset and disagreement at home and outside.
As with neatness, if things are left disorganized or not set out in a particular way, perfectionists may experience anxiety or react angrily. They may spend hours planning and making lists, yet still failing to engage in the task.
Sending emails, filling in forms, completing assignments, and even writing in a card may be delayed due to fear of making mistakes, making the process of writing tortuous.
- Self-consciousness in speaking
Perfectionists may be overly self-conscious regarding what they say and how they say it, and may be unduly concerned with incorrectly pronouncing words.
- Physical appearance
People with perfectionist standards can set impossibly high standards regarding their hair, clothes, weight, and body image. Individuals may be late for work, prioritizing their time on finding the perfect outfit.
Perfectionist behavior may focus too much on health and wellbeing. Health-obsessed individuals may be concerned about touching anything or eating something they haven’t prepared, and frequently visit the doctor.
Ultimately, for people with impossibly high standards, only the impeccable can be accepted. Failing to reach this level can be so devastating it may not be worth trying to succeed at all (New Scientist, 2019).
Causes of Perfectionism: 3 Psychology Theories
Next, we explore several popular and important theories in psychology and use them to understand the precursors to perfectionism (Stoeber, 2018).
We begin with summaries of attachment theory, person-centered theory, and self psychology before examining their impact on how we acquire perfectionism (modified from Stoeber, 2018):
- Attachment theory
Attachment theory provides a practical and compelling view of the effect of an individual’s early environment on personality development, including self-regulation and performance.
Attachment theory suggests that during times of threat, we seek support from caregivers. A lack of care or neglect leads to insecure attachment and a reduced capacity for emotional regulation and support seeking.
The models we form early in life are carried forward to adulthood, impacting coping and interpersonal behaviors (Stoeber, 2018).
- Person-centered theory
Carl Rogers (1959) suggested that people have a natural drive to actualize their potential, and as part of this, they “have an innate sense of what will help or hurt their ability to actualize themselves” (Stoeber, 2018, p. 245).
Initially, all experiences are unitary; then, over time and because of interaction with caregivers, children discriminate between what is me and not me. Children become aware that self-value and positive regard often depend on others’ acceptance and meeting their performance expectations.
- Self psychology
Kohut and Wolf (1978) propose that a child’s self-esteem and self-development are dependent on how parents meet their needs. Specifically, children must experience caregivers’ admiration (empathic mirroring) and regard them in an idealized, all-powerful way.
Any disruptions to this process provide the child with the opportunity to self-soothe and strengthen their sense of self (Kohut & Wolf, 1978; Stoeber, 2018, p. 245).
According to Kenneth Rice, Hanna Suh, and Don Davis (cited in Stoeber, 2018), the three theories above provide the basis for understanding the early origins, development, and maintenance of perfectionism.
Parents providing supportive and reliable environments “help children develop high but realistic standards and corresponding views of themselves as worthy and confident, and views of others as trustworthy and confident” (Stoeber, 2018, p. 247).
Positive settings that lead to healthy, adaptive perfectionism include (Stoeber, 2018):
- Dependable and stable relationships with parents and parental expectations that are both reasonable and clear
- Parents who encourage performance, yet whose love is unconditional on how children perform
- Parents who respond supportively and with encouragement
On the other hand, maladaptive perfectionism results from the opposite or lack of the above:
- Parents are inconsistent or unclear (to their children) regarding their expectations.
- Children’s performance matters little or not at all to parents.
- The child may fail to experience inherent relational or intrinsic value from their parents.
“Children of such parents may learn to emphasize the importance of their performance over and above their emotional needs” (Stoeber, 2018, p. 247).
Striving for perfection and ignoring emotional needs can be a ‘logical’ consequence of unsupportive home environments, while the child attempts to maintain recognition or avoid criticism.
Perfectionism may emerge to self-soothe children who live with either few and unclear expectations or far too many, excessively detailed ones (Stoeber, 2018).
Can Perfectionism Be Dysfunctional?
While perfectionism can have a positive, adaptive side, driving development and growth, it can also be dysfunctional.
When excessively high and demanding standards perpetuate, they can affect mental and physical wellbeing, relationships, and careers (Antony & Swinson, 2009).
Is perfectionism bad?
“Perfect performance, flawlessness, and the perfect body are revered in sport, dance, and exercise” and have led to incredible performances and achievements (Stoeber, 2018, p. 155).
While perfectionism in any activity requiring discipline and prolonged focus can have its benefits and deliver success, at other times (even in those same individuals), it can damage motivation and directly lead to failure (Stoeber, 2018).
OCD & perfectionism
The link between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and perfection is well documented. Perfectionists are more likely to engage in excessive ordering, washing, sanitizing, and checking, often linked to a need for certainty (Martinelli, Chasson, Wetterneck, Hart, & Björgvinsson, 2014).
Depression & perfectionism
People with a higher degree of perfectionism are more prone to developing depression, particularly during stressful episodes. In education, this could include exam time, and in the workplace, when project timescales slip (Antony & Swinson, 2009).
If the stress persists, self-oriented perfectionists are more likely to be depressed a year later. On the other hand, through reducing expectations and learning to accept lower standards, the effects of depression can subside (Antony & Swinson, 2009).
Perfectionism, Fear of Failure, & Procrastination
Procrastination is common among perfectionists (Stoeber, 2018). Along with tackling other counterproductive behaviors, therapists may suggest that clients self-monitor behavior and thoughts linked to procrastination, such as obstructing or delaying tasks.
Perfectionistic concerns generate a gap between a person’s actual and ideal self. This sense of falling short leads them to put off until tomorrow what they could get done today (Smith, Sherry, Saklofske, & Mushqaush, 2017).
Other studies, particularly in sports, have found that perfectionists are also more likely to experience a fear of failure (Correia, 2018). Procrastination may be a response to concerns regarding making mistakes or performing poorly.
Link Between Burnout and Perfectionism
Burnout is a “psychosocial syndrome that is associated with motivational, performance, and psychological difficulties” and has three core symptoms (Hill & Curran, 2015, p. 1):
- Emotional exhaustion
A general feeling of being overstretched due to excessive demands.
- Impersonal or cynical attitude
A sense of indifference or detachment from others or the environment.
- Reduced sense of competence or accomplishment
The higher the sense of incompetence or failure, the more burned out the individual.
Perfectionism gets in the way of successfully managing our workload and can sometimes be a factor in burnout. Excessively high standards may mean perfectionists are less successful at delegating, prioritizing, and even saying no, leading to a higher volume of tasks (Harvard Business Review, 2021).
Possibly because of its negative effect on motivation, perfectionism is associated with burnout and its symptoms (Hill & Curran, 2015).
As such, when exploring the factors affecting burnout in a client, it may be worthwhile identifying their degree of perfectionism.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
The following resources help clients become more aware of their personality traits through mindfulness and self-reflection. Other tools help them find calm and peace, and can help with excessive life demands experienced by those with perfectionist tendencies.
- Perfectionist Beliefs ‘Flexibility’ Self-Assessment
This short assessment presents a series of questions to help clients identify areas where their thinking is rigid and instances when they might benefit from relaxing perfectionist tendencies.
- Countdown to Calmness
This mindfulness exercise invites clients to use all five senses to ground themselves, induce calm, and mindfully accept things the way they are.
- Compassionate Chair Work
This exercise, available to download for free via our Positive Psychology Exercise pack, draws on the principles of schema therapy to help clients learn to relate differently to their inner critical voice. It involves the client moving between two chairs as they dialogue between different parts of themselves in an attempt to better understand how they work together, conflict, and feel when experienced in the present.
- 17 Positive Psychology Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Seeking high standards or reaching for our ultimate achievements can motivate and encourage us to be and do our very best. Yet too much, too often can damage our wellbeing, potentially leading to burnout, depression, and poor motivation.
Our degree of perfectionism may be formed early in our lives, most likely in response to correction, criticism, rewards, and support. Our caregivers’ reaction to our efforts and their degree of encouragement can either lead to high but realistic standards or an emphasis on performance at the cost of our emotional needs.
Perfectionism can have far-reaching impacts, from education, work, and pastimes, to maintaining relationships.
Ultimately, excessive perfectionism can be exhausting, pushing us to our limits and leaving us emotionally drained or unable to complete what is needed when it is required.
Take time to review the article. Consider whether your stressed or burned-out client is experiencing the consequences of perfectionism. Ask yourself how it would be possible to set more realistic standards and achievable goals with them. Having a more balanced outlook and expectations is likely to improve their lives and relationships with others.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Antony, M. M., & Swinson, R. P. (2009). When perfect isn’t good enough: Strategies for coping with perfectionism. New Harbinger.
- Boyes, A. (2020). Don’t let perfection be the enemy of productivity. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2020/03/dont-let-perfection-be-the-enemy-of-productivity
- Correia, M. E. (2018). Fear of failure and perfectionism in sport. Cuadernos de Psicología del Deporte, 18(1), 161–172.
- Harvard Business Review. (2021). HBR guide to beating burnout. Harvard Business Review Press.
- Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2015). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20(3), 269–288.
- Kohut, H., & Wolf, E. S. (1978). The disorders of the self and their treatment: An outline. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59, 413–425.
- Martinelli, M., Chasson, G. S., Wetterneck, C. T., Hart, J. M., & Björgvinsson, T. (2014). Perfectionism dimensions as predictors of symptom dimensions of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 78(2), 140–159.
- New Scientist. (2019, August 14). Our obsession with perfection is damaging individuals and society. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24332433-200-our-obsession-with-perfection-is-damaging-individuals-and-society/
- Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships: As developed in the client-centered framework. In S. Koch (Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science: Vol. 3. Formulations of the person and the social context (pp. 184–256). McGraw-Hill.
- Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Saklofske, D. H., & Mushqaush, A. R. (2017). Clarifying the perfectionism-procrastination relationship using a 7-day, 14-occasion daily diary study. Personality and Individual Differences, 112, 117–123.
- Stoeber, J. (2018). The psychology of perfectionism: Theory, research, applications. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
- Thomson, H. (2019). The misunderstood personality trait that is causing anxiety and stress. New Scientist. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24332430-600-the-misunderstood-personality-trait-that-is-causing-anxiety-and-stress/