by Wai-Kwong Wong, Ph.D.

When we think of perfectionists, the people that often come to mind are paragons of success, like Apple founder, Steve Jobs, or perhaps someone like the director, Stanley Kubrik, who infamously shot 127 takes for a single scene in The Shining. Some people associate perfectionism with uncompromising excellence and success, and others with stress, overwork and burnout. So is perfectionism a good thing or a bad thing? As Winston Churchhill once quipped, “They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they'd make up their minds.”

While there is no “perfect” definition, perfectionism is often defined as a multidimensional personality style that has three parts:

  1. A relentless striving for flawlessness,
  2. Excessively high standards,
  3. Negative self-evaluations based on judging yourself largely on your ability to meet such unrelenting standards.

hands moving paper clips, pencils, and desk items into a uniform arrangementIn other words, it is a belief that perfection exists and is desirable, that it is achievable, and that if you don’t achieve it, you’re a failure.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t have any standards. Having high standards can be a good thing. It motivates us to work hard and set goals. But having excessively high standards that are either unachievable or achievable only at a great cost is problematic. Not only does it set you up to feel bad about yourself, and make you more vulnerable to depression or anxiety, it can actually impair your performance and prevent you from attaining the very thing you seek. Perfectionists are often prone to procrastination because of the pressure they place themselves under. They sometimes miss deadlines as a result or even avoid doing a task altogether. This is the paradox of perfectionism. There is a big difference between a healthy striving for excellence and an unrelenting drive for perfection.

A person who has a healthy drive for excellence (an “excellentist”) will have high, but achievable standards, see mistakes as normal and inevitable, view failures as temporary setbacks and learning opportunities, and overall have a more stable self-esteem that is not wholly based on what they achieve or not achieve. In contrast, a perfectionist with unrelentingly high standards will see mistakes as intolerable, and any “failure” as a reflection of their self-worth. Their self-esteem is contingent on success and their focus is solely on the outcome of their endeavors, not on the endeavors themselves. Thus they often have less inherent satisfaction in what they do because only the result matters.

Being a perfectionist doesn’t necessarily mean you have such unrelentingly high standards in every area of your life. You can certainly be a perfectionist at work, but also potentially at home as well, in terms of cleanliness or organization, or with sports or fitness, or in relationships, or in just one area and not in others.

How do we become perfectionists? A number of factors over many years can play into why we become perfectionists. The most obvious way is through reward and positive reinforcement. You do well on an assignment so you get an A and a “good job!” from the teacher. You take it home and show it to your family and they praise you. These things feel good, and we want more, and over time, it can morph into a belief that the only way to feel good about yourself or for others to think well of you is to be successful.

Another way is through punishment and lack of positive reinforcement. So perhaps you do poorly on an assignment (or maybe even just get a ‘B’ instead of an ‘A.), your parents are upset and criticize you. Or more subtly, they don’t criticize you but they don’t say anything at all; there is an absence of praise. Either way, you might come to believe that anything less than stellar is bad and undesirable.

Sometimes, people don’t recall being praised or punished for their accomplishments; their parents weren’t too concerned with their grades or sports. However, we also learn through observations and modeling, by watching how others behave. So, if your parents, or someone who is a role model to you, works all the time, takes work home to do at night or over weekends, you might come to believe that work is more important than relaxation or friends or even family. Another form of modeling or indirect learning comes from our environment, the culture that we grew up in. If it seemed that everyone around you worked hard and seemed to really value accomplishments, and that’s what everyone seemed to talk about all the time (Cornell anyone?), that might lead us to absorb these same beliefs.

Finally, some people just have an innate predisposition to perfectionism, even from early childhood. They might recall being upset if they didn’t get the right answers to questions even in pre-school or if their blocks were not arranged perfectly. This kind of temperament can make a person more likely to develop perfectionism.

How do we overcome our perfectionism? Well, it didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be resolved overnight either. It will require a lot of patience and perseverance. Here’re a few tips:

  • Conduct  a cost-benefit analysis. Consider the ways in which perfectionism may help you in your life, and then make an ongoing list of all the ways iy which harms you. Keeping this in mind will help motivate you to make the hard changes you will need to counter your perfectionism.
  • Practice self-compassion. Those with perfectionistic traits tend to be extremely critical of themselves. They have a harsh inner voice in their head telling them that what they’re doing isn’t adequate, they’re not trying hard enough, and they’re not good enough. Instead of just listening to that voice and accepting what it says automatically, stop for a minute and imagine what you might say to a friend you really care about in a similar situation. Would you say the same things? Probably not. Try to turn those words and that kindness onto yourself and take it in.
  • Adopt the “good enough” standard. Perfectionists tend to have unrelentingly high standards of themselves and others. They tend to be all-or-nothing in nature; something is great or it’s terrible. Try relaxing those standards and thinking more in shades of gray and adopt a reasonably high “good enough” standard.
  • Focus on the positive. Many perfectionists are also prone to zeroing in on any mistake or imperfection they may see, either in themselves or someone else. This is probably automatic and habitual but try making a conscious choice to notice the positive as well. For every flaw you see, try noticing five positive qualities as well to balance out this tendency.
  • Set modest goals for change. Remember that perfectionists are, well, perfectionistic. They tend to set high expectations, even for things like overcoming perfectionism, and want to do things perfectly the first time. Change is hard and it won’t happen all at once. Make small changes and over time they will add up.

Reducing perfectionism does not mean that you have to give up high standards and live a life of mediocrity. But remember that you can also think, behave, live, work, and play in a balanced, healthy, and helpful way! Remember that there is a big difference between the healthy and helpful pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy and unhelpful striving for perfection.