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Perfectionism: What is it Exactly?

We all define “perfection” in our own terms. Where one person may describe the perfect professional achievement, another may describe the perfect body or romantic relationship. Where we are similar is that we all see perfection as an accomplishment just out of reach and we fully believe, to our advantage and disadvantage, that we can achieve it.

According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, perfectionism means accepting nothing short of perfection. Essentially, this is believing that absolutely everything has to be completely perfect all the time. When our standards become higher and higher, that accomplishment just out of reach becomes always out of reach. The difference between someone with high standards and someone with perfectionistic standards is that the latter set goals that are impossible to achieve and are affected negatively when they do not reach these goals. However, we can teach ourselves to fight perfectionistic standards and replace them with more appropriate, challenging goals that are within reach. Yes, this might sound like “lowering your standards,” but rather than thinking of it as a loss, the idea is that we’re adjusting our expectations so we can be more successful in the future.

Where perfectionists believe that everything always needs to be perfect, those with achievable high standards understand that there are some things that need to be perfect, but not everything. Instead of focusing on problem-solving the important issues, perfectionists tend to fret over the small, trivial concerns. Perfectionists seem to be more motivated by a fear of failure, rejection, or criticism rather than the potential to succeed or the pursuit of happiness. They see themselves as either perfect or a failure, whereas those with achievable goals understand that we have strengths and weaknesses in each of us.

Interestingly, there are three different types of perfectionism based on beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially-prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionism is characterized by having unrealistic expectations for yourself, difficulty admitting to or accepting mistakes you made, difficulty acknowledging you possess flaws, difficulty tolerating uncertainty, excessive self-doubt, and being indecisive. This category has four subtypes: identity (I need to be perfect), performance (I need to do it perfectly), moral (I am unworthy if not perfect), and organization (scheduling and planning perfectly). Other-oriented perfectionism is related to holding others to unrealistic standards, having difficulty trusting others or taking their advice, having difficulty tolerating uncertainty, being easily frustrated by other people or impatient, and needing to feel in control. This category has three subtypes: performance (only I can do it perfectly), romantic (they must be perfect), and organization (others need to follow my schedule). Socially-prescribed perfectionism is characterized by an excessive need to gain approval from other people, assuming other people automatically judge you negatively and have exceptionally high standards for you, worrying about how others perceive you, excessive self-doubt, and difficulty tolerating uncertainty. This category has four subtypes: appearance (I must look perfect), emotional (I must always seem perfect), romantic (I have to have the perfect partner), and organization (if I’m not organized, others see me as lazy/imperfect).

Perfectionistic Standards

High Standards

“I must not fail at any task I undertake.”

“I want to be the best at what I do, and I understand that failure is part of success.”

“I can never make a single mistake.”

“I would like to minimize mistakes, but I can learn from my mistakes as well. Mistakes help me improve.”

“I have to appear strong and in control all the time”

“I can manage my emotions and reactions well. Showing emotions appropriately can strengthen relationships.”

“I will do whatever it takes to make sure others approve of me and like me.”

“I will treat others with kindness and respect, regardless of what they might think of me.”

“I should never disappoint anyone.”

“I will do the best I can to help others, but you cannot please everyone all the time.”

“Achieving the best possible outcome every time is what is most important.”

“I will put my best effort in each time I work on something. Continued improvement is important.”

Many challenges come with perfectionism. It can lead to procrastination, indecisiveness, low self-esteem, increased levels of stress and anxiety, avoiding risk, issues with commitment, and reported symptoms of depression. Although perfectionism is not, in itself, a psychological disorder, it shares similar characteristics to these conditions. Thus, there are many ways to effectively change your perfectionistic cognitions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. This is done by evaluating your strengths, balancing your thinking, and improving your self-esteem. Approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and others have focused on all three parts of the triad – thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Through these therapeutic treatments, it is possible to break out of the habit that is perfectionism and learn to set more attainable goals for yourself.

For you to answer:

1. Do you think it’s possible to change some of your perfectionistic beliefs?

2. How do you think other people in your life define and view perfection?

Take the Perfectionism Cognitions Inventory to determine if your thoughts are perfectionistic and causing you distress:

Written by Lindsay Cleary, M.S.Ed.

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