Perfectionism: Friend or Foe?
Updated: Sep 16, 2019
Are you tired of not being good enough? Take a minute to learn about the different kinds of perfectionism and how you can work towards an adaptive style of perfectionism.
When discussing perfectionism’s role in one’s mental health, it is important to clearly define the type of perfectionism that is being referenced. In the past, perfectionism has been viewed as a solely maladaptive trait, which could result in a variety of negative psychological and behavioural issues. However, researchers are now proposing the idea that there are two dimensions of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. When perfectionism is adaptive, it has a task focus, and leads to less maladaptive behaviours. This is more commonly referred to as “striving for excellence.” However, maladaptive perfectionism is different in its propensity to lead to negative behaviours such as excessive checking, task-avoidance, and high levels of self-criticism. Instead of enhancing performance, maladaptive perfectionism impairs it by impacting one’s ability to work and evaluate results rationally.
Maladaptive perfectionism is damaging because it involves striving for an unrealistic goal, which is characterized by the absence of failure, mistakes, or loss. The Canadian Psychological Association, reflects the maladaptive connotation of perfectionism by defining it as, “...a multidimensional personality style that is associated with a large number of psychological, interpersonal, and achievement-related difficulties”. They further explain that it is a vulnerability factor for other disorders, not a disorder itself. In contrast, healthy perfectionists strive for attainable goals. They find satisfaction and pride in their accomplishments, and, most importantly, “they allow themselves the flexibility to make and accept minor mistakes”.
Individuals who demonstrate perfectionistic strivings can also be categorized into two groups: those who are excessively self-critical and those who are not. Perfectionism that is characterized by high levels of self-criticism is considered maladaptive, whereas lower levels of self-criticism align with more adaptive perfectionism. This separation of adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism based on levels of self-criticism, highlights the importance of skills such as self-compassion, which are foundational to positive psychology. Self-care activities may enable us to engage in more adaptive forms of perfectionism, therefore helping us reach our full potential. Recently, an Australian study confirmed that self-compassion was a valuable resource in managing disorders, such as depression, which can result from maladaptive perfectionism.
It’s important to recognize that we all experience perfectionism in some areas of our life. Taking the time to reflect on these perfectionistic tendencies, by considering the thoughts, feelings and motivations associated with our behaviour, might be crucial for our mental wellness.
By acting proactively, we can foster adaptive perfectionism (where appropriate), as well as recognize and limit the negative impact of maladaptive perfectionism in our lives. Anxiety Canada has identified the following steps for managing perfectionism:
1) Learn to Recognize Perfectionism
It is necessary to learn to recognize the feelings, behaviours, and thinking styles related to maladaptive perfectionism.
Feelings: frustration, anger, depression, anxiety
Behaviours: chronic procrastination, excessive checking, constant re-doing of completed tasks, avoiding new things, agonizing over small details or mistakes
Thinking Styles: black and white thinking, catastrophic thinking, should statements
2) Change Your Behaviour and Thoughts
Once you have recognized areas of maladaptive perfectionism in your life, it’s important to challenge and overcome them. This requires both changing your style of thinking and your behaviour.
Overcoming perfectionistic compulsions will take practice. It will feel uncomfortable at first, but with practice and repetition each action will become increasingly easier overtime. Practice lowering your standards, starting with easier situations and working to more stressful ones. Try speaking to an individual whom you trust to help you develop more realistic standards to progress towards. Although it may seem like an inconvenience, hassle, or even an added stress to try changing our current thoughts and behaviours, working towards more adaptive perfectionism can significantly improve our mental and physical health, life satisfaction, and quality of our relationships. In addition to the previously mentioned behaviour changes, here are some things that you can do to start addressing negative thought patterns:
1) Replace self-criticism with realistic thoughts (ex. “Nobody is perfect”, “Everyone makes mistakes”, “If I do my best, I’ll have done everything I can.”)
2) Change your perspective: It’s easy to get caught up in one narrow perspective, that blinds us to a more realistic view of the situation. Try to look at the big picture. Ask yourself the following questions when you experience negative perfectionistic thoughts:
“How would someone I respect view this situation?”
“What advice would I give others experiencing this?"
“Is this really that important in the long run?
“What is the worst thing that could happen, and could I deal with that?”
3) Compromise: Ask yourself how much imperfection you can tolerate in each situation, and work towards a reasonable standard.
Before I close, I want to remind you that learning to deal with perfectionism is a process that will take time. Self-compassion becomes critical as you rewire your thoughts, and continue to push and challenge yourself every day. It’s also important to not become perfectionistic about working on your perfectionism! As I wrote this article, I found myself becoming caught up in making sure each detail was perfect. I had to remind myself of the bigger picture: spreading awareness of the topic of perfectionism, and I recognized that my writing didn’t need to be perfect in order to have an impact. I’m sharing this with you because I want you to realize that everyone is imperfect at times, but we all have the potential to make a difference!
Bieling, P.J., Israeli, A.L., & Antony, M.M. (2004). Is perfectionism good, bad, or both? Examining models of the perfectionism construct. Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 36, pp. 1373-1385. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0191-8869(03)00235-6
Ferrari, M., Yap, K., Scott, N., Einstein, D. A., & Ciarrochi, J. (2018). Self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link in both adolescence and adulthood. PloS One, 13(2), e0192022
How to Overcome Perfectionism. (n.d.). Retrieved August 3, 2019, from Anxiety Canada website: https://www.anxietycanada.com/sites/default/files/Perfectionism.pdf
"Psychology Works" Fact Sheet: Perfectionism. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2019, from https://cpa.ca/docs/File/Publications/FactSheets/PsychologyWorksFactSheet_Perfectionism.pdf
Rice, K. G., & Preusser, K. J. (2002). The Adaptive/Maladaptive perfectionism scale. Measurement and Evaluation Counselling and Development, 34(4), pp. 210+
Suh, H., Gnilka, P. B., & Rice, K. G. (2017). Perfectionism and well-being: A positive psychology framework. Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 111, pp. 25-30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.01.041