People tend to believe that perfectionism is an undesirable trait, but truthfully, it can be used as an asset rather than a liability. Generally, perfectionism is considered to be a tendency to believe there is a perfect solution to every problem, a schema that recognizes just two categories of performance—perfect or unsatisfactory, with nothing in between. Perfectionism is a multidimensional measure and it can be a personality characteristic. It is usually developed in childhood, primarily due to the perception of high expectations by parents (e.g., insecure children with low self-esteem seeking constant approval, acceptance, and affection from parents who are difficult to please). Given the perception of parental criticism, perfectionism may result in doubting the quality of one’s actions. Along with the preference for order and organization, it is also associated with procrastination and generally, individual tasks may take longer to accomplish because of a fear of mistakes. There is an argument that perfectionism can be healthy and unhealthy.
Research studies mention that perfectionism can be explained by understanding two main concepts (whether it is healthy or unhealthy): perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings aim to achieve high-performance standards, positive emotions, and the motivation for performance by raising the bar when they reach the goal, not out of fear but out of the excitement of intellectual curiosity. This can lead to healthy perfectionism, and it can be underappreciated by individuals, their friends, and relatives. Some challenges occur with this perfectionism when it is all-consuming, overwhelming, or misdiagnosed.
Perfectionistic concerns are associated with evaluating others: performance fear, meeting personal expectations, and fear of failure. These behaviours can be categorized as unhealthy perfectionism, as it can be a negative trait promoting self-defeating outcomes and undesirable behaviour patterns. For example, children growing up in a dysfunctional family are over-praised. When parents emphasize their accomplishments and felt the acceptance of love as conditional, they may grow up exhibiting signs of fearing failure, procrastination, avoidance of challenging activities, and generalized anxiety.
Therapists at CFIR can offer therapeutic strategies to clients with healthy and unhealthy perfectionism. However, as these behaviours are often not recognized, the clients would manifest symptoms more like the feeling of overwhelm, exhaustion, and the inability to accomplish tasks resulting in anxiety, depression or lack of motivation, procrastination, imposter syndrome, work stress, burnout or loud inner critic leading to faulty thinking patterns. Therefore, please do not hesitate to contact us or inquire more to understand and develop strategies to cope with such behaviours or symptoms.
“When you are a perfectionist, you don’t know when to stop because there is no end, there is no ’best work.” The standard is unreachable. —Ruth Buczynski, PhD.
Prober, P. (2016). Your rainforest mind: A guide to the well-being of gifted adults and Youth. GHF Press.
Roja Vivekanand, MA, MPsy, RP, is a Registered Psychotherapist at the Center for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto. She is an integrative therapist who works with adults and family clients from diverse backgrounds to help them resolve a wide range of complexities related to anxiety, depression, work stress, anger, trauma, grief, health psychology, and interpersonal relationship issues.