The American Psychological Association Dictionary defines perfectionism as; “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.” There is a lot to unpack here and, given the relationship of perfectionism to mental illness, it is of interest to us.
Perfectionism, as a cognitive, emotional, and behavioral tendency, can be categorized as a personality trait or disposition. However, it is not one of the ‘Big 5’ traits or factors of personality – neuroticism, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and openness. Perfectionism is, however, strongly correlated with conscientiousness. Perfectionism together with conscientiousness, the latter defined as the tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking (or industrious), often work hand in hand. Perfectionism (in some definitions such as the one above) is the mental ‘demand’ of meeting these high and sometimes unattainable standards, while conscientiousness is the carrying out of particular activities done in particular ways to meet these standards. Perfectionistic concerns, thus, are often the driver of conscientious behaviors.
Given this, the question arises: Can perfectionism be adaptive? There is fierce debate among scholars of perfectionism. Some say, “Yes, a person with perfectionism has the motivation to achieve nearly flawless outcomes and, thus, is more likely to work hard and, as a result, to actually achieve these outcomes.” Depending on the nature of the achievement, this person may then be recognized as exceptional, be afforded greater opportunities, and achieve greater financial status and relationship rewards. These achievements can then breed high self-esteem, a life of security and comfort, and, ultimately, greater happiness.
Other scholars dispute the concept of adaptive perfectionism, stating that perfectionism is incompatible with adaptive coping. But much of this dispute hinges on definitions. Perfectionism can be defined as limited to maladaptive concerns and strivings; if perfectionism were to be adaptive then, by definition, it would not be considered perfectionism. What then could it be instead? These scholars would say (and I agree) it would be a striving for excellence. The difference here is between striving for perfection versus striving for excellence.
What this dispute shows is that there is a difference between a tendency that drives a person to work conscientiously to achieve much, often much more than if they did not have this internal demand to strive for excellence, and a tendency that drives a person to demand more than that person, or perhaps any person, can actually achieve. Perfectionism, thus, is a striving for what is unachievable and leaves a person always falling short, never meeting their self-imposed standards, feeling chronically lowered self-esteem due to their repeated failures, and repeated shame in front of important others who may also expect much (or too much) of this person.
Perfectionism and School
Perfectionism usually starts in school. After all, this is the main activity of humans until or past the age of majority and is the time the personality develops and matures. Additionally, most schools are set up to assess and test students in some more or less objective way. These assessments then translate into test scores and letter grades. Thus, for all the years of school it is possible to strive for perfection: one can get (or not get) a perfect 100% on a test or a perfect (or not perfect) grade point average. And, of course, all these scores and grades are highly relevant to future life opportunities.
So, after 12, 16, or 20+ years of this scoring and grading regime, it is easy for a person to believe that perfection can be, first, quantified and, second, achieved with high enough standards and sufficient effort.
Perfectionism and Life Outside of School
Outside of school, though, what does it mean to be perfect? What standard is perfection to be defined against? Or who is it to be defined against?
Consider our work as clinicians. What would it mean to be a perfect psychopharmacologist? Or perfect therapist? Or perfect breadwinner? Or perfect employee or team member?
It makes little sense to say I conducted a perfect course of psychotherapy or that I am a perfect psychopharmacologist. In these cases, to say one is perfect is both hubristic and undefinable and, most often, simply meant metaphorically.
Instead, it does make sense to assess oneself in any of the following ways (hopefully with justification): as being thoughtful, careful, hard-working, reliable, wise, respectful, informative, knowledgeable, skilled, interested in the patient, receptive to the patient’s concerns, competent, flexible, principled, fair, welcoming, creative, or supportive.
So, we can help ourselves and our patients transition from perfectionism towards a different standard: towards doing one’s best in the ways that matter, towards excellence as a way of continued efforts at improvement, and towards creativity, discovery, engagement, and service.
I’ll end with this: I recently started thinking about perfectionism and the narrowness of its purview after binge-watching four Andrei Tarkovsky movies. They are strange and often with a minimal plot. They are also beautiful, capacious, memorable, and utterly unique to this director/writer. These movies are not perfect and cannot be perfect. Perfection is a misplaced criterion; it makes no sense to think of perfection in regard to these movies. And it makes little sense to think of perfection in regard to life. One can live mindfully, striving towards excellence, virtue, joy, purpose, gratitude, engagement, and so on, but not towards perfection.
Thanks, and let me know what you think and which topic you would want me to cover.
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success.” ― Brené Brown
“There is no perfection, only beautiful versions of brokenness.” ― Shannon L. Alder
“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and everyday confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.” ― Jane Austen
“On this sacred path of Radical Acceptance, rather than striving for perfection, we discover how to love ourselves into wholeness.” ― Tara Brach
“The film [Stalker] needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.” ― Andrei Tarkovsky
“In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight, only in its recollection.” ― Andrei Tarkovsky