Perfectionism, is it achievable or treatable?

One of the assessments we use for understanding someone’s thinking and decision making is the Thinking Pattern Profile. In the individual report provided it will often times describe someone as “perfectionistic”. This descriptive adjective shows up on many of the reports I have interpreted, including my own. I thought it might be useful to define the term to better understand its meaning and potential impact. Definitions: 

  • A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable

  • Rigorous rejection of anything less than perfect.

  • Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At such levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief, and psychologists typically refer to such individuals as maladaptive perfectionists.

  • Hamachek describes two types of perfectionism. Normal perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labors of a painstaking effort" while neurotic perfectionists are "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things [well] enough to warrant that feeling of satisfaction". Burns defines perfectionists as "people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment"

  • In the Big Five personality traits, perfectionism is an extreme of conscientiousness and can provoke increasing neuroticism as the perfectionist's expectations are not met. Perfectionists always put their goals ahead of everything.

  • Stoeber & Otto (2006) recently reviewed the various definitions and measures of perfectionism. They found that perfectionism comprised two main dimensions: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings are associated with positive aspects and perfectionistic concerns with negative aspects. Healthy perfectionists rate high in perfectionistic strivings and low in perfectionistic concerns, whereas unhealthy perfectionists rate highly in both strivings and concerns.

  • Greenspon considers perfectionism to be unitary combination of a desire to be perfect, a fear of imperfection, and an emotional conviction that perfection (not “near-perfection”) is the only route to personal acceptance by others. Perfectionism itself is thus never seen as healthy or adaptive. Greenspon makes a distinction between perfectionism and striving for excellence. The difference is in the meaning given to mistakes. Those who strive, however intently, for excellence can simply take mistakes (imperfections) as inducements to further learning and work. Perfectionists take mistakes as signs of personal defects that make them less acceptable.

I don’t know if you can relate to any of the definitions provided, or if one resonates with you more than others, but I appreciated the distinction between “normal/healthy perfectionists” and “neurotic/unhealthy perfectionists”.

Recently I was asked for my feedback on how someone can address their perfectionism, which they believed interferes with fully accepting others and self. I thought more deeply on the word, its implications, and realized it was a question only they could answer for themselves so I suggested they journal their response to the following questions: 

  1. What does perfectionism mean to you?

  2. What would perfect look like in yourself and others?

  3. Is perfection achievable in self or others?

  4. How is holding onto perfection serving you?

  5. Can you forgive yourself for not being perfect?

  6. Can you forgive others for not being perfect?

Then I suggested they explore a new standard for themselves and others if perfection is not working for them. I suggested journaling on what they value and appreciate in themselves and others. How can they take steps in looking for the strengths in self and others along with accepting the imperfections? Then commit to how they want to show up differently in their relationships.

The ultimate recognition is knowing when perfectionism is serving you versus hindering you living your life fully and joyfully.