Perfectionism is when we put pressure on ourselves to achieve high standards, which also heavily impacts how we view ourselves.
Perfectionism is not always a good thing but nor is it always a bad thing, there are elements of perfectionism that are helpful and unhelpful.
A Definition of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can be described as a constant striving to achieve extremely high standards that are very demanding of the individual. (The standards may be considered unreasonable to someone else in your world).
You may find that you place your self worth on achieving these extremely high standards and continuing to reach them despite the cost to yourself (Flett & Hewitt, 2002).
Having reasonable standards and goals can be helpful to achieve things in your life, however when the goals are not achievable, it can lead us to feeling bad about ourselves and perhaps a sense of failure.
The Pros of Perfectionism
Some of us think of perfectionism as being a positive trait, as we envision a high achiever.
When we want to achieve well, we put in a lot of effort and often challenge ourselves. This can be a positive as it helps us to learn new skills, work out ways to manage stress and pressure, our strengths and weaknesses, and what works for us to achieve well (Stoeber & Otto, 2006).
The Cons of Perfectionism
The extremely high standards that we can set for ourselves can impact our happiness. For some people, the motivation to achieve well can actually impact their performance. There is a difference between healthy and helpful pursuits to achieve well, and unhelpful striving for perfectionism (Stoeber & Otto, 2006).
Perfectionism is unhelpful when we relentlessly strive for extremely high standards that we have set for ourselves. If we set this level of standards for ourselves and continue to push forward to reach them, it is important to be aware of the pressure we put on ourselves.
Additionally, perfectionism is not only about doing our best, it is doing better than previously, and achieving a greater level of performance – and feeling that this is not enough, despite achieving our desired goal (Stoeber & Otto, 2006). The relentless drive to achieve and excel can be self defeating and does not give us the space to meet goals and feel good about ourselves.
Placing our self worth on our ability to achieve (Hill, Hall, & Appleton, 2011) leaves us very vulnerable, as not achieving the standards we have set for ourselves (which could be unachievable) can leave us feeling like we have failed . If that achievement was not as prominent in how we perceive ourselves, then not reaching that standard or making a mistake would feel more acceptable.
Striving to achieve these extremely high standards can have a significant impact on our wellbeing (Sirois, & Molnar, 2016), and result in social isolation, worry, relationship struggles, frustration, obsessive-compulsive thoughts/behaviours, constantly re-checking tasks, insomnia, procrastination, a persistent sense of failure and more.
Perfectionists have extremely high standards for themselves in one or many areas of their lives. Some of these might include:
- Organising things
- Relationships (family, partner, friends)
- Body (food, weight, shape)
- Physical appearance
- Health, fitness, sporting
Perfectionists may have behaviours such as:
- Difficulty making simple daily decisions
- Seeking reassurance (excessively) / checking
- Correcting small things
- Excessive list making and organising
- Giving up too soon
- Procrastination / avoidance
- Not knowing when to stop
- Attempting to change / correct others
- Unhelpful rules and assumptions
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Fear of failure
(Hewitt, Flett, Besser, Sherry & McGee, 2003)
What are Excessively High Standards?
A standard is a guideline we use to measure success, approval or comparison. They also provide us with a manner of judging ourselves and our progress.
We often set standards for ourselves and others (family, friends, partners, society) and the degree that the standards are met contributes to our self worth (Shumaker & Rodebaugh, 2009).
Standards can become problematic when they are unrealistically high, inflexible, and in some cases not communicated effectively to those in your world.
Sometimes we are not consciously aware of our standards and we mostly only notice when they are not being met. For example, we may notice that we feel frustrated when someone has not performed a simple duty to keep the house clean. Our standard might be that the house must be clean at all times, however how flexible is this standard?
If the cons far outweight the pros of perfectionism for you, there are ways to overcome this tendency.
It starts with becoming aware of the standards we have set for ourselves (and others), working to relax them and finding a way to be more flexible in our thinking (Flett & Hewitt, 2002).
Trying new things and doing things that we may not be used to is also a good idea. This allows us to feel uncomfortable (which is ok), allows us opportunities to make mistakes and learn. The more we practice this, the more comfortable we become in reducing anxiety, standards and perfectionism.
Addressing and changing perfectionism does require time, effort and commitment. However it can be done, so that we can have a quality of life that we all deserve to have.
Author: Aleah Haffenden, B Soc Wk, Grad Cert Suicide Prevention, AMHSW.
Aleah Haffenden is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, working primarily with young people (aged 15 and up). She takes a client-focused approach, using a mix of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), tailored to their specific needs.
To make an appointment with Aleah Haffenden, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.
- Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment. American Psychological Association.
- Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and social psychology review, 10(4), 295-319.
- Hill, A. P., Hall, H. K., & Appleton, P. R. (2011). The relationship between multidimensional perfectionism and contingencies of self-worth. Personality and individual differences, 50(2), 238-242.
- Sirois, F. M., & Molnar, D. S. (Eds.). (2016). Perfectionism, health, and well-being. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
- Hewitt, P. L., Flett, G. L., Besser, A., Sherry, S. B., & McGee, B. (2003). Perfectionism Is Multidimensional: a reply to. Behaviour research and therapy, 41(10), 1221-1236.
- Shumaker, E. A., & Rodebaugh, T. L. (2009). Perfectionism and social anxiety: Rethinking the role of high standards. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 40(3), 423-433.