Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionism

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Perfectionism is a tendency to set up excessively high standards for yourself and/or others. Like any personality trait, perfectionism includes a whole spectrum of characteristics, some positive and some negative, that vary from person to person. We tend to characterize perfectionism as a negative trait in our culture, but research has indicated that there are both healthy (adaptive) and unhealthy (maladaptive) types of perfectionism.

What Is Adaptive (or "Healthy") Perfectionism?

This type of perfectionism is characterized by having high standards for yourself as well as others, being persistent in the face of adversity, and conscientiousness. Healthy perfectionism usually goes along with goal-directed behavior and good organizational skills.

For instance, you might describe yourself as a perfectionist when it comes to school or work because you always strive to do your best, turn your work in on time and meet or exceed expectations. However, you don't get too upset if you don't quite meet your goals.

This is a healthy type of perfectionism because it focuses on the positive and motivates you to do well. Many athletes and artists have adaptive perfectionism and since it only relates to one area of their lives, their sport or their art, it helps them excel in their fields.

What Is Maladaptive (or "Unhealthy") Perfectionism?

As with anything, perfectionism can be extremely unhealthy if taken to an extreme. Maladaptive perfectionism is characterized by excessive preoccupation with past mistakes, fears about making new mistakes, doubts about whether you are doing something correctly and being extremely concerned about the high expectations of others, such as parents or employers.

An excessive preoccupation with control is also a hallmark feature of maladaptive perfectionism. This type may affect every area of your life, not just one or two. Basically, it is perfectionism that is extreme enough that it rules your life and causes severe anxiety and stress.

For example, you might consistently get sick to your stomach before a test or presentation because you are so afraid you will not live up to others' or your own expectations. Another example is constantly asking others for reassurance that you are doing a good job and that you are liked and respected. You may spend a good portion of your days ruled by fear or anxiety over not meeting your own high standards. These ways of coping are unhealthy because they focus on the negative, as well as things that you usually cannot control anyway.

In general, while adaptive perfectionism tends to be associated with good psychological well-being and high achievement both at school and at work, maladaptive perfectionism has been associated with distress, low self-esteem, eating disorders, insomnia, and symptoms of mental illness.

Get Help If Perfectionism Is Impairing Your Quality of Life

If your perfectionism seems to be taking over your life, it might be time to find some help. There are treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, available to help you relax, let go and stop letting your perfectionism rule your life.

You may be able to identify causes or triggers for your perfectionism as well that will help you understand how to manage it more effectively.

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Article Sources

  • Bieling, P.J., Israeli, A.L., & Antony. Is Perfectionism Good, Bad or Both? Examining Models of the Perfectionism Construct. Personality and Individual Differences. 2004 36: 1373-1385.