Thursday, November 1, 2018

Abandoning perfectionism

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.

We use the word "perfection" to denote our ultimate approval. "You look perfect." "That meal was absolute perfection." "Your audition went perfectly." We watch the Olympics and wait expectantly for that perfect 10. Our sports heroes, musicians, actors, and dancers are expected to consistently give 100%, or the critics swiftly broadcast their disapproval.

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 anxietyeating 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.

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  1. Ah, Gail, finally an area where we seem to disagree. And, yet, I think it's more a matter of semantics. I use the terms intrinsic versus extrinsic perfectionism because I see how gifted folks innately often strive for what we can call perfection: beauty, balance, precision, justice, and harmony. And that's different from the agony of fear of making a mistake or fear of failure, etc, that comes from outside sources. But I see what you're saying and can agree that we could call the extrinsic (unhealthy) variety "perfectionism" and what I'm called intrinsic, well, we could call it something else. Maybe that would cut down on the confusion. Anyway, I always appreciate reading your thoughts.

    1. Thank you, Paula! I always appreciate your insights as well. I actually think we agree - and that a lot of it involves semantics. I think you have parsed through the subtle differences; however, I think that many people use the terms in a generic sense (just like people inaccurately call themselves "bipolar" or "OCD" or a variety of other labels) and then those labels influence their self-perception. So my post was an attempt to alleviate that burden. Ultimately, I think we are on the same page, though. :)

  2. This fits my daughter completely! She has tried for a long time to get past her perfectionism. She is better now that she is out of college, but it is still hard for her. Thank you for pointing out that perfectionism is brutal for people who have it.

    1. Anonymous, I'm glad your daughter is starting to come to terms with perfectionism and it is not affecting her so much.

  3. Good examples of risk factors - thanks for sharing!

  4. Hi Gail,
    I believe you've captured the complexity of perfectionism well, especially as perfection itself is a moving target. The added conversation around intrinsic or extrinsic perfectionism is also very helpful and thought provoking. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Susan. Yes, it certainly is a complex topic! I appreciate your feedback.

  5. Tom Greenspon, Ph.D.November 7, 2018 at 6:30 PM

    Hi Gail,
    Thanks so much for this excellent column, and for the link to my work on perfectionism! For those interested in a more recent paper of mine, this article is out there: . Also, there is this more widely available brief summary, with references to more in-depth help, on the NAGC website: .

    Addressing perfectionism can be complex, as you say, but I have a somewhat different view of the ingredients for what is typically a recovery process. I have not found CBT to be particularly helpful in a sustained way, and it contains a paradox: Assigning tasks or exercises prompts an attempt to do them perfectly, thus inducing the thing you are hoping to eliminate. Since perfectionism, in my view, is a self-esteem problem, addressing issues of shame and acceptance is important. Therapy may indeed be needed, but there are some things parents and teachers can try on their own as well.

    1. Tom, Thank you so much for your feedback! I would be glad to share your recent work; however, the links didn't show up on the comments section. Please forward them to me directly through my e-mail at, and I will post them here.

      I agree that CBT does not work for everyone, and so appreciate your comment about the role of shame and self-esteem. These reflect the depth of the problem and highlight the importance of challenging widespread assumptions that perfectionism can be healthy or adaptive.

  6. Tom Greenspon, Ph.D.November 7, 2018 at 9:33 PM

    Oops -- I did notice that the links didn’t appear — I will get them to you!
    I like the distinction you make between pursuing perfection, or as I say it, pursuing excellence, and perfectionism. The bright line between them, I think, is in the perfectionistic person’s fear of failure. That fear is based directly on the conviction that mistakes are a sign of personal worthlessness, as your dictionary quote asserts. Thanks again for covering this important issue.

    1. Thanks, Tom. I added your links to the list of articles above.

  7. Thank you Gail! I agree that it is really easy to justify perfectionism as healthy. It's not. I'm hoping as a recovering perfectionist, that my example to my sons of embracing my imperfections will help them with theirs.

    1. Thank you, Jen. We all need to role model healthy behaviors for our children. Thanks for reminding us that sharing our own imperfections (which most kids readily point out!) and our resilience in managing and accepting them, is helpful for their own growth and development.