In psychology, perfectionism is a term used to describe a personality trait that involves constantly striving for perfection, maintaining high (sometimes excessive) standards, and refusing to accept anything less that flawlessness.
The Psychology of Perfectionism
In the Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology (Volume 3), Hewitt and Flett explain that, “Perfectionism is a broad and multifaceted personality construct that involves the requirement of perfection or the appearance of perfection for the self or for others.” The authors note, however, that, “it is important to clarify what perfectionism is not: it is not possessiveness, orderliness, rigidity, conscientiousness, or achievement motivation. Although some of these features can at times coexist with perfectionism, they do not constitute perfectionism.”
Some of the different behaviors commonly associated with perfectionism include:
- Critical self-evaluations
- Unrealistic expectations
- Excessive concern with mistakes and errors
- Believing that others should be perfect
- Projecting an image of flawlessness
- Refusal to acknowledge imperfections
Perfectionism, like most personality traits, exists on a continuum and people typically lie somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. And like many traits, perfectionism has both its good sides and bad sides. On the positive end, perfectionism can push people to do their best and strive to give their maximum performance. On the negative end, it can lead people to be overly critical and judgmental of both themselves and others.
Why Are Some People Perfectionists (and Others Not)?
My husband and I spent several years remodeling an old farmhouse that originally belonged to his grandparents. Taking on such a huge project is always a sure-fire way to learn more about your partner. My husband, I quickly discovered, is a classic perfectionist. Every detail, no matter how small, must meet his stringent and exacting requirements.
What makes some people perfectionists and others not? In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Leon F. Seltzer argues that childhood experiences likely play a pivotal role. Children who are raised to believe that the amount of love and approval they receive is directly connected to their accomplishment and achievements may be more likely to display perfectionist characteristics.
The Pluses and Minuses of Being a Perfectionist
He also notes that perfectionism can either become a negative or positive force in our lives. If you waste valuable time obsessing over perfecting details that really aren’t all that important, it might be because you are ruled by what Seltzer refers to as “the curse of perfectionism.”
But striving toward perfection isn’t always a bad thing. In many cases we engage in this behavior because it’s something that the situation demands. An accountant might not be a perfectionist in all areas of his life, but it becomes a necessity when he’s balancing an account, otherwise he might miscalculate and his clients could end up spending more than they can afford.
Building or remodeling a house is another great example of a situation that demands perfection. Precision is required to ensure that the building is structurally sound, meets local building codes, and passes muster with building inspectors.
In some cases, we actually engage in perfectionism as a matter of choice. When we are participating in an activity we love, whether it be running a marathon, knitting a sweater, or baking a pie, we frequently strive for perfection because doing so offers internal rewards. Becoming more accomplished and seeing the results of our efforts is pleasurable and satisfying. In other words, sometimes the quest for perfection can actually be intrinsically rewarding.
Observations About Perfectionism
“Several research reports have indicated that it takes an intensive and fairly lengthy course of psychotherapy to change perfectionistic behavior and its attendant adjustment problems (see Blatt, & Zuroff, 2002). On the other hand, there are self-help books available for attempting to deal with perfectionism, although it is not clear whether these books are helpful and whether they truly change perfectionistic behavior.” (Hewitt & Flett, 2010)
“A consensus has emerged that perfectionism should be differentiated into two main dimensions: perfectionistic concerns and perfectionistic strivings. Whereas the dimension representing perfectionistic concerns captures those aspects associated with concerns over mistakes, fear of negative evaluation by others, feelings of discrepancy between one’s expectations and performance, and negative reactions to imperfection, the dimension representing perfectionistic strivings captures those aspects of perfectionism associated with self-oriented striving for perfection and very high personal standards of performance.” (Stoeber, 2014)
Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (2010). Perfectionism. In I. B. Weiner & W. E. Craighead (Eds.), The Corsini encyclopedia of psychology, volume 3. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Stoeber, J. (2014). Perfectionism. In R. C. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Encyclopedia of sport and exercise psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.