Perfection is a powerful word
It evokes awe, fear, obedience and rebellion. It causes anguish and sleepless nights and insecurity and impostor syndrome. It results in debate about its relative utility and whether it is good or bad.
This word, perfection - and, of course, the meaning it conveys - results in suffering for those who strive to achieve and believe that they fall short.
Perfection is not the same as perfectionism, even though these concepts are often used interchangeably. Perfectionism describes the traits, thoughts, feelings and behaviors that arise when self-worth hinges on accomplishments. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the "medical definition" of perfectionism is the following:
"a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable especially: the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness."
This definition emphasizes the role of one's disposition, the setting of unrealistically high standards, and an attribution of worthlessness if goals are not achieved. These emotional/psychological characteristics differ from the more descriptive, behavioral terms used to define perfection, such as: "freedom from fault or defect; flawlessness; an unsurpassable degree of accuracy or excellence."
Clearly, there is a difference between the act of perfecting, and a perfectionistic disposition. Yet, there is ongoing debate and confusion about how perfectionism is labeled, and whether it sometimes can be considered "healthy" or "adaptive."
What about "adaptive" perfectionism?
Claims regarding the presumed benefits of adaptive or healthy perfectionism suggest that a little bit of perfectionism harnesses motivation and drive. But how can we label a trait that contributes to obsessive worrying, low self-esteem, and sometimes paralyzing anxiety as healthy and ultimately beneficial?
It would seem that some of the debate arises from the conflation of these terms. Definitions of perfection and perfectionism are merged together as if they are one concept. There appears to be little distinction between the positive act of striving for perfection and the negative effects of perfectionism. In an article claiming that "healthy perfectionism" is an oxymoron, Greenspon aptly notes the following:
" a body of literature asserts that some perfectionism is healthy, even though a critical review of this literature finds no factual or theoretical basis for such a claim. The commonly asserted belief in a dichotomy between healthy and dysfunctional perfectionism is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of perfectionism, in part, confusing the concept with striving for excellence."
In another article, Etienne Bensen provides an overview of research on perfectionism. She cites researcher Paul Hewitt, who criticizes claims that perfectionism is adaptive. He points out that the drive to excel and the drive to be perfect are conflated, and this overlooks the serious negative consequences associated with perfectionism. In this article, he states:
"I don't think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive... people have said that self-oriented perfectionism is adaptive. People make that claim, and they'll just ignore the fairly large literature that says that it's a vulnerability factor for...depression, anorexia and suicide."
Can we abandon perfectionism, yet strive for perfection when it is needed? Is there a way to achieve, excel, and aim for success without falling into the grips of perfectionism?
When precision matters
There are some professions where precision, drive, accuracy, and conscientiousness are essential. We all want our auto mechanic, surgeon, tailor, and airline pilot to be careful and precise. But must they be perfectionists? Or is their conscientiousness and precision just part of their job description - all in a day's work?
How, then, do we distinguish a drive for excellence, precision, and yes, sometimes even perfection, from the negative influence of perfectionism?
The lure of perfectionistic thinking is ever-present when precision, accuracy or a final performance are necessary components of an accomplishment or job. Not everyone who strives for excellence becomes perfectionistic, though. Risk factors for perfectionism include the following:
- A culture (school influences, family dynamics, peer pressure) that stresses excellence at all costs; where failure and imperfection are not acceptable; where harsh criticism and shaming are tactically applied to improve performance. For an extreme example, see this story of pianist Lang Lang's experience.
- Family dynamics where expectations run high regarding accomplishments; when parents, siblings, or other family members are highly accomplished role models; where there are overt or unspoken messages that a child's success will bolster a parent's self-esteem or personal needs.
- An innate tendency toward anxiety, worry, and self-criticism, priming an individual to form high expectations and base self-worth on accomplishments. Research suggests that there may be some genetic influence on the development of perfectionism.
- A response to past traumatic experiences, where achieving perfection conveys a feeling of safety, comfort, and control. This may seem to help an individual manage emotions related to traumatic past events, but results in the pressure to always achieve, be the best, remain vigilant, excel at all costs - and does not address the actual effects of the trauma.
The pain of perfectionism
Perfectionists have difficulty rebounding from a perceived failure experience, others' critiques of their accomplishments, or situations where their performance is compared to that of their peers. They feel overwhelmed when standards seem vague or unfair, when their success is based on a one-time event, such as an audition, concert, or sports competition, or when the "rules" change mid-stream. They feel shame when they fail to live up to their own or others' expectations - even if failure is viewed as a slightly imperfect test score. Perfectionism may be common among high achievers; however gifted and talented individuals are no more likely to struggle with perfectionistic traits than anyone else.
Perfectionism is devastating. It causes worry, shame, and fear. It backfires when procrastination, avoidance and "stage fright" inevitably emerge. Gifted underachievers, students who flee from college after their first semester, and talented musicians who abandon music after years of dedicated practice exemplify the ravages of perfectionism gone awry. And yet many perfectionists quietly persist, pushing themselves to achieve their best, suffering silently, despite their nagging fears. Anxiety, social anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and even suicide have been associated with perfectionism.
How to help our children - and ourselves
Effort, integrity, compassion, endurance, drive, resilience, caring - these are the traits that matter, and spur people toward achieving their goals. These are the traits most parents want to instill in their children. Perfectionism ultimately backfires, as it fuels anxiety, burn-out, self-blame, insecurity, procrastination, avoidance, unhappiness, and ironically, can result in mistakes, as hesitation, uncertainty and emotional paralysis interfere at the worst possible times.
Confronting perfectionism can be complicated, and typically involves a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and sometimes more intensive psychotherapeutic approaches. Articles and books that offer CBT guidelines for challenging negative views can be found online. However, since perfectionism can vary for each individual, it is preferable to seek out a licensed mental health professional who can tailor an intervention to address an individual's specific needs.
Let's stop speaking about good and bad perfectionism. Let's recognize that perfectionism serves no good purpose. Let's help our children - and ourselves - to strive to be the best at what matters, but to abandon the belief that our character and self-worth are based on what we achieve.
Further reading on perfectionism
The many faces of perfectionism
What causes perfectionism?
The search for imperfection: Strategies for coping with the need to be perfect
8 signs you're a perfectionist (and why it's toxic to your mental health)
Perfectionism is increasing, and that's not good news
The alarming new research on perfectionism
Pursuing excellence is excellent...Perfectionism is a pain!
Is there an antidote to perfectionism?
This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Blog Hop on Perfectionism. To read more blogs, click on this link.