Definition of Perfectionism
In this article, we will explore the definition of perfectionism, understanding perfectionism, and why it is destructive.
What Is the Definition of Perfectionism?
Perfectionism refers to a belief system that one should stive to attain perfect or ideal standards and not make mistakes. Perfectionism can result in the ability to feel satisfaction for one’s efforts because things may never be perceived as good enough. People with perfectionistic tendencies may be on the alert for imperfections and weaknesses in themselves and others.
Sometimes, the fear of not being good enough can be so paralyzing that procrastination or avoidance taks hold to avoid feelings of failure or inadequacy. Unfortunately, perfectionism can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem as one continuously feels “less than”.
Perfectionism is not the same as striving for excellence. People who pursue excellence in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in working to meet high standards. Alternatively, people motivated for perfection may be driven by self-doubt and fears of disapproval, ridicule, and rejection. The high producer has drive, while the perfectionist is driven.
Causes and Characteristics of Perfectionism
Fear of failure and rejection. An irrational fear for someone might be that she will be rejected or fail if she is not always perfect, so she becomes paralyzed and unable to produce or perform at all (procrastination).
Fear of success. A perfectionist belief might be that if he is successful in what he undertakes, he will have to keep it up. This becomes a heavy burden—who wants to operate at such a high level all of the time?
Low self-esteem. Needs for love and approval could blind one to the needs and wishes of others. This makes it difficult or impossible to have healthy relationships with oneself or others.
Black-and-white thinking. People with perfectionistic beliefs may see most experiences as either good or bad, perfect or imperfect. There is nothing in between. There may be a belief that the flawless product or superb performance must be produced every time. If it can’t be done perfectly, it’s not worth doing.
Extreme determination. People with perfectionistic beliefs are determined to overcome all obstacles to achieving success. This is also true of high achievers, but the perfectionist focuses only on the result of his efforts. He is unable to enjoy the process of producing the achievement. His relentless pursuit of the goal becomes his downfall because it often results in overwhelming anxiety, sabotaging his heroic efforts.
The Costs of Perfectionistic Beliefs
The definition of perfectionism also includes an impairment of some sort in regular functioning while striving to meet high standards. This refers to the costs of perfectionism. The costs or impairment could include being paralyzed with fear and an inability to work towards one’s goals. It can produce contradictory styles, from being highly productive to being completely nonproductive. Some examples of these costs include the following:
Low self-esteem. Just as low self-esteem is a cause of perfectionist behavior, it is also a result. Because a person with perfectionistic beliefs never feels good enough about himself or his personal performance, he may feel like a failure.
Gloominess. Since a perfectionist belief might be that it will be next to impossible to achieve most goals, she can easily develop a negative attitude.
Depression. Perfectionistic beliefs may lead one to feel discouraged and depressed because the ideal is never reached.
Guilt. A perfectionistic belief system might lead one to think they never handle things well. They often feel a sense of shame and guilt as a result.
Rigidity. When perfectionistic beliefs prevail it can lead one to become inflexible and lack spontaneity.
Lack of motivation. A person who expects perfection may never try new behaviors or learn new skills because she thinks that she will never be able to do it well enough. At other times, she may begin the new behavior but give up early because she fears that she will never reach her goal.
Paralysis. Since perfectionistic beliefs include an intense fear of failure, it can lead one to become immobilized and stagnant. Procrastination may be a constant battle.
Obsessive behavior. When a person needs a certain order or structure in his life, he may become overly focused on details and rules.
Compulsive behavior. When someone follows perfectionistic beliefs it can lead to self-medication with alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, sex, gambling, or other high-risk behaviors.
Eating disorders. Many studies have determined that perfectionism is a central issue for people who develop eating disorders.
The Perfectionist versus The High Achiever
People produce many of their best achievements when they are striving to do their best. High achievers, like perfectionists, want to be better people and achieve great things. Unlike perfectionists, high achievers accept that making mistakes and risking failure are part of the achievement process—and part of being human. This is part of the definition of perfectionism, striving for perfect standards and not making mistakes (failure).
Emotionally Healthy High Producers
You can be a high achiever without being a perfectionist. People who accomplish plenty and stay emotionally healthy tend to exhibit the following behaviors:
• Set standards that are high but achievable.
• Enjoy the process, not just the outcome.
• Recover from disappointment quickly.
• Are not disabled by anxiety and fear of failure.
• View mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning.
• React positively to constructive feedback.
Once you understand the definition of perfectionism and are aware of the ways by which you expect yourself to be perfect, you can start to change your behavior. In my next post, I’ll offer some tips to help you get started. Until then, begin the change process by thinking about which causes apply to you and writing down examples of these perfectionist beliefs and behaviors as you observe them.
For help with perfectionism, we offer a 12-week, overcoming perfectionism therapy group.
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In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, a leading expert on shame, authenticity, and belonging, shares ten guideposts on the power of Wholehearted living—a way of engaging with the world from a place of worthiness.
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