According to Noah Webster, “perfectionism” is “a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.”
While not inaccurate, the dictionary definition does not convey the full depth of the word, its connotations both positive and negative.
In this two-part series, we will look at the different types of perfectionism, how they manifest, signs and symptoms of perfectionism, and how to cope with the consequences that can stem from negative perfectionism.
Is Perfectionism Good or Bad?
Perfectionism is considered by some to be an asset, a healthy motivational tool that helps people achieve success at the highest levels be it in the boardroom, on a Broadway stage, or on an Olympic track.
Conversely, it is deemed by others—including an increasing number of doctors, therapists, psychologists, and others in related fields—to be not only an impediment to success but a precursor to issues that can have wide-reaching effects on an individual.
More and more evidence is being documented that suggests a strong link between perfectionism and negative attitudes and behaviors. For example, after more than twenty years of research, practicing psychologist and University of British Columbia professor Paul Hewiit, PhD, and his colleague, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto Gordon Flett, PhD, have found that “perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.”
They further argue that while there are different types of perfectionism, no form is without problems.
The Types of Perfectionism
Many researchers, like psychologist Kenneth Rice, PhD, who has written studies for the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, believe there are two kinds of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive.
Adaptive perfectionism is considered to be “normal” and healthy, a trait where one gets satisfaction from achievements attained through hard work while allowing for the inevitable imperfections that accompany any activity. Adaptive perfectionism can also be viewed as positive perfectionism, in which the person is achievement oriented.
Maladaptive perfectionism is considered to be unhealthy, and is seen in someone who has high personal performance standards and the tendency to be highly self-critical. Furthermore, when something does not go according to plan, a maladaptive perfectionist is likely to develop negative thoughts and feelings. It can also be viewed as negative perfectionism, in which the person is driven by the fear of failure.
Hewitt and Flett believe that while “winning”—be it in sporting, academic, or business endeavors—is important to adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists, failing to do so is considerably more stressful for the latter than it is for the former.
Research shows that such stress can result in consequences such as low self-esteem, Anxiety, and Depression—sometimes so severe that the final result is suicide.
How Perfectionism Manifests Itself
Some perfectionists feel the need to be error-free because of perceived social pressures. They think others will value them only if they are perfect. If they fail to perform to that standard, they can become depressed and suicidal more easily than, say, people who are “other-oriented” perfectionists.
Other-oriented people are not without their struggles, though. What most often presents in them is the tendency to require perfection from their family members, friends, and colleagues. Intimate relationships in particular often suffer when at least one of the partners has this type of perfectionism.
Self-oriented perfectionists, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, are internally motivated to be perfect. People in this group can be fine in low-stress situations but can readily become anxious when serious issues arise. They often have mental health problems, particularly eating disorders and chronic stress.
The Problems with Perfectionism
For many perfectionists, life is a constant evaluation of their own accomplishments, looks, status, etc. It is often a surefire route to low self-worth and unhappiness. Perfectionists tend to have inner voices that call them lazy, useless, or not good enough when they fail to fulfill their standards, whether those standards are self-imposed or imposed by others.
Perfectionists can lead lives in which they’re regularly afraid of private shame or public humiliation for not meeting their own or other’s unrealistic expectations. Often, this can result in high Stress, Anxiety, Depression, and Anorexia in many female self-oriented perfectionists, and even suicide.
The first steps to correcting a problem are accepting and understanding the problem. With the knowledge of what perfectionism is and how it can manifest in different ways, the next post will provide guidance for how to cope with perfectionist tendencies so that they do not lead to adverse mental and physical health issues.