“Good enough is good enough. Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time.”

Rebecca Wells

It’s been said that perfectionism is a trait that makes life seem like an endless report card. Perfectionists are typically described as people who strive for flawlessness as their goal. Perfection may sound good in theory, but research reveals that the pursuit of perfection often serves as a major obstacle to real achievement. Perfectionism, however, is built into our culture, media, and even our economy.

Back in the early 1970s many industries adopted ‘”Zero Defects” programs that emphasized that no flaws in work performance were ever acceptable. To cut cost and become more efficient, everyone was expected to “do things right the first time.” Even the government adopted this program. Back then I was working at a golf course located on a department of defense installation and “Zero Defects” signs were plastered all over the place. Of course, the golfing itself was exempt, because no one ever plays golf without making mistakes.

The modern version of Zero Defects is the Six Sigma approach to quality control, which was introduced by American engineer Bill Smith at Motorola in 1986. Six Sigma is statistical notation for a performance level that allows only 3.4 defects per one million opportunities. It’s not quit perfection or zero defects, but it comes awfully close. Many companies still use some version of this approach and I suppose it still has appeal to folks who are naturally perfectionists, unlike myself.

The foundation of perfectionism is the belief that self-worth is based entirely on achievement. There is no unconditional positive regard. Approval and acceptance are seen as strictly transactional — essentially payment for good performance. Research shows that perfectionism is generally associated with personality traits such as rigidity, low self-esteem, and all-or-none thinking. There may also be high parental expectations, early exposure to criticism and shaming, excessive praise, and specific cultural expectations.

Rigidity makes it difficult to adapt to new challenges or switch tactics and low-esteem leads to repeated attempts to prove oneself. All-or-none thinking can generate beliefs such as “If I can’t be perfect I won’t even try.” This results in procrastination or giving up when success appears uncertain or incomplete. By not trying you can’t fail.

Excessive parental demands and the harsh use of criticism may result in unrealistic aspirations and intense fear of failure. Excessive praise may lead to overvaluing achievement. Cultural influences can be seen in phenomena such as the so-called “tiger parenting,” which has been used to describe a traditional Chinese parenting style that employs both punitive tactics like fear and shame, but also prioritizes familial closeness. I also remember once talking to a physician from Southern Asia. He told me that in his family, the boys all were expected to become either doctors or engineers, with engineers having the higher status. There were no other alternatives offered.

There are three basic types of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism is when you inflict an unrealistic desire to be perfect upon yourself. When you impose it on others it is called other-oriented perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism involves the inability to accept failure, which is seen as catastrophic. It’s never fully trusting your successes and being hypercritical about even the smallest error. Finally, socially-prescribed perfectionism is when you are subjected to unrealistic expectations of perfection from others such as your parents.

Recent research suggests that perfectionistic people tend to see their problems as existing outside of their control. This may be why they frequently struggle in stressful situations. Just perceiving a difficult situation as more controllable can help improve it. Psychologist Vrinda Kalia at Miami University says that the ability to switch perspectives or change behaviors easily is an important skill in problem-solving. This skill is called cognitive flexibility and, according to Kalia, it can “provide you with insights about alternative pathways to get to your goal.” Perfectionists, however, are often too rigid to look for alternative interpretations of difficult situations. Teaching them to regulate negative emotions by reframing the situation is often very helpful.

Recent studies of identical and fraternal twins at the Michigan State University found that identical twins had much more similar scores on measures of perfectionism than fraternal twins did, suggesting there is a significant genetic influence in play with perfectionism.

Perfectionism occasionally overlaps with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) although they are not interchangeable. Perfectionism is generally seen as a personality trait while OCD is a mental disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts and/or incontrollable repetitive behaviors. Perfectionistic tendencies occasionally may, however, be a symptom of OCD.

Perfectionism can be psychologically damaging and has been associated with anxiety and depression. It also lead to procrastination, self-deprecation and alienation and social isolation due to rigid interpersonal patterns. Perfectionism is also increasingly being considered to be a risk factor for suicide.

Therapy for perfectionism often aims at challenging all-or-nothing thinking patterns, encouraging the setting of realistic expectations, and helping patients face their exaggerated fear of failure. An additional challenge is that perfectionists who seek out therapy often expect to be perfect at therapy, too. The prevalence of perfectionism is high in children and adolescents and currently ranges from 25% to 30%.

Amy Przeworski, a clinical psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, uses exposure therapy to treat perfectionism in adults and children. In this approach, patients are gradually exposed to imperfections and thus learn to tolerate them. Patients may be asked, for example, to tie their shoes unevenly, leave a punctuation mark out of something they wrote, or drop a stitch in some sewing project, without correcting it. Despite much initial resistance, Przeworski says, “… they do learn that a small mistake doesn’t make a whole project worthless.”

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., is the imperfect CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems and can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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