- Education and Science
PERFECTIONISTS: Pleasure or Pain?
We hear the word “perfectionist” and “perfectionism” thrown around almost daily. We use it generically, to amusingly describe a behavior in which we, or someone we know, has nit-picked or fine-tuned a task beyond the expected norm. We may refer to ourselves as perfectionists, apologetically or jokingly – to excuse, or offer explanation for why something we did is particularly detailed.
The truth is, real perfectionism is no laughing matter. While we may even jest about it ourselves, we are often covering up a stressful, and yes, even painful condition that we have little or no control over. It is a struggle, for many, including myself - every day.
Some who do not have perfectionist tendencies may not understand what a perfectionist is. They may assume, from the name – that it means that one literally thinks that they do things perfectly, or that they are capable of doing things perfectly. While perfectionists may excel in areas, this assumption generally is far from the truth.
Many perfectionists are, in fact, unhappy, much of the time – because they believe that whatever the current task at hand is, it did not get done to it’s best (ideal, “perfect” potential). Perfectionists are often the opposite of what they want to be - disorganized, feeling out-of-control, and will procrastinate important priorities in order to achieve perfection on another, less important task. Their own perceived failure to achieve the desired perfection, often results in feelings of frustration, and even low self-worth. Consequently, the perfectionist moves from one task to another, hoping to achieve the desired effect- sometimes feeling satisfied, sometimes not – but not ever achieving what is what we seek most in our lives - contentment and peace.
What Exactly is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism, simply defined in psychological terms, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. There is different degrees of perfectionism, beginning with a slight idiosyncratic tendency, and others suffering from extreme pathological levels, when the perception is that perfection will NEVER be attained and anything less is unacceptable. In extrem cases, the individual constantly suffers by engaging in fruitless efforts to achieve what ultimately cannot, be achieved.
Hamachek (cited by Parker & Adkins 1994) describes two types of perfectionism. Normal perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labors of a painstaking effort" while neurotic perfectionists are "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things good enough to warrant that feeling". Burns (also in Parker & Adkins 1994) defines perfectionists as "people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment".
Most of us that categorize ourselves as perfectionists fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Whatever the severity – I speak from experience in saying that it is an uncomfortable place to be in. While temporary from one task to the next, it often causes unnecessary stress– whether or not the outcome is positive or negative.
Is There Such a Thing as "Good" Perfectionism?
This is debatable, because while there is such a thing as “healthier” levels of perfectionism, all perfectionism can obstruct us from successes in life. On the positive side - perfectionism can drive people to accomplishments and provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles.
Some studies show that some driven perfectionists are less likely to procrastinate; but that usually means for a specific task they are driven to complete. High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. Perfectionism is associated with giftedness in children. There are many successful, famous, and wealthy perfectionists. Another name has been given to highly functioning and perceived “successful” perfectionists: INTJ, or Introverted- Intuitive-Thinking –Judging, which you can read more about here: http://www.typelogic.com/intj.html
Functioning perfectionists are viewed as talented, persevering, charming, admirable, smart, and have specific talents in given areas that other’s admire. This is where I believe the misconceptions begin. What others don’t see, is the discomfort that the person endures during the process of attaining their goals (and in the perfectionists eyes, they've usually not attained it completely to their satisfaction). Often others perceive the perfectionist as being “humble” because they make self-deprecating comments, such as “oh, I could have done better” or "it's not my best". The reality is, they are frustrated that they worked so hard and didn’t finish, or truly believe that the task (and subconciously, themselves) is not quite good enough.
Ask any of these highly driven, successful (sometimes famous) perfectionists if they have reached contentment or peace in their life – and I’m not sure you would get a definitive answer.
What's So Bad About Perfectionism?
Perfectionism in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But often what happens, is that one becomes so focused on the task at hand, they fail to view the bigger picture as it needs to be seen. Or worse, they inadvertently neglect things that may be equally or more important that the task in which they are engaging. This can trickle into career, family, marriage, and other relationships.
In example, while a perfectionist may be good at their job, they may never be promoted because they are unable to “let go” of things that they perceive they can do better (more perfect). Perfectionists have trouble with delegation, and often are not effective multi-taskers (although they may think they are). This is because they are focused on what they do. While they may be praised for a job well done, they may find themselves limited to middle management or lower because of their inability to broaden the scope of their perspective. More disappointing, is that the perfectionist may never be told these things, and will feel a subliminal low self-worth due to their immobility. They will continue attempts to perform their already-near-perfect-work even more perfectly, to no result.
Perfectionists are their own worst critics, as well. This causes a great many problems, because what many people may view as normal “constructive criticism”, a perfectionist takes to great heart. You may have experienced trying to help someone that was a perfectionist improve on something that was obvious to you – only to met with hostility, defensiveness, or hurt feelings. This is because the perfectionist has already spent a lifetime recovering mentally from their “always trying to measure up” wounds from childhood, and their current “I’m not perfect but try every day” quest to overcome those old wounds.
Perfectionists have difficulty hearing anything negative from a peer, family member or friend. It is largely rooted in the cause of their perfectionism, and every comment about their performance forces them to revisit their feelings of potential inadequacy.
Perfectionists may suffer from depression, anxiety – and often engage in addictive behaviors to relieve their unending stress, including alcoholism, eating disorders, and drugs. Many perfectionists have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) combined with perfectionism, and some are even suicidal. How often have you heard of a celebrity that this happened to? You may have thought, “but I don’t understand, they were so successful”. Just take a look at this list of perfectionist athletes with current or former eating disorders:
What Causes Perfectionism?
Generally, perfectionism runs in families. More painful cases are often a result of having highly authoritative parents, or parents that are narcissistic and offer only conditional love. There is too much to cover on these subjects, so I will save details on that for another article.
The Good News: A Note to My Readers
I have done a significant amount of self-healing in therapy and through books over the years to learn about this condition and it’s causes. Were it not for that work in counseling, I would not be the successful person I am today (nor would I be able to say the words "I am successful"). Most importantly, I know I am practicing behaviors in my parenting style that will be better for my children, so they do not suffer- and will be raised in an environment where their presence will be celebrated and they (hopefully) will enjoy positive self-esteem.
If you are suffering from levels of perfectionism that cause you to be distracted from a good quality of life, I highly recommend you seek professional counseling and work on your family of origin. With awareness, hard work, and a willingness to change, you can be even more successful in your life than you ever dreamed. You can learn to use your personality trait to your advantage, and learn how to manage the stress so it doesn’t overtake your life.
Your children will exhibit signs of perfectionism at a very young age. It is important to educate yourself and be equipped for helping him or her learn how to use this trait positively and to cope with their feelings. If you don’t work on it for yourself, do it for your children. There are some good resources at Amazon that I've posted above, and additional sources on the web - some of which I've posted links to below. Your children will be grateful.
 Parker, W. D. & Adkins, K. K. (1994). Perfectionism and the gifted. Roeper Review, 17 (3), 173-176.
Great Help & Understanding for Perfectionists
- Perfectionism: A Double-Edged Sword
Websit from the University of Texas that explains in great detail various areas of perfectionism, causes, help, etc.
- Perfectionism: When Excellence Isn't Good Enough
Great article that references children and their relationship with perfectionism.
- One Stop Mommy Shop: Help for Perfectionist Parents
More lighthearted & realistic help for perfectionists managing their families day to day. Free recipes, organizational ideas & activities for children.