Unlike many personality traits, perfectionists usually recognize their perfectionism. And if they don’t, then their co-workers do. Colleagues of a perfectionist readily surface the information in an expletive format like, “god, what a perfectionist!” That translates, most don’t need to be told, as “what a pain in the butt.”
Historically, perfectionism has been viewed as a personality style that includes striving for flawless performance, meeting excessively high standards and overly critical evaluation of one’s own behavior. Of course, some perfectionists are quietly proud of that personality trait. And though they might make self-deprecating comments or laugh about themselves, they have not the slightest interest in rejecting the category. After all, most perfectionists believe it’s gotten them a lot of kudos and opportunities in their career.
Is perfectionism all negative?
The dominant view through the 1980’s was that perfectionism was pathological, the sign of a neurotic and disordered personality. Perfectionism, psychologists believed, was driven by concerns over mistakes, doubts about actions and fears of rejection. These researchers stressed that unhealthy ...
At that time the discipline of psychology was inevitably framed around the negative and abnormal. Thus, perfectionism was viewed as a one-dimensional disease. And so psychologists, controlled by their own confirmation bias, saw what they expected to see—a disease. But with the work of Martin Seligman in the 1990’s and the shift of the psych discipline away from the clinical to the healthy personality, some psychologists began to look more deeply into perfectionism.
In a systematic study of research dating from 2006, Stoeber and Otto found, in stark contrast, that some perfectionism can be positive and constructive. In other words, their research revealed that it was a multi-dimensional personality trait. With more studies they found that perfectionistic behaviors can be driven by two dimensions: self-orientation or other-orientation, healthy or unhealthy. Perfectionistic strivings (self-orientation) were related to conscientiousness, positive emotions, satisfaction with life, active coping styles and personal achievement. They also showed higher levels of self-esteem, agreeableness and the ability to get along with others.
More intriguing still, is that children who show high levels of perfectionist strivings and set their own standards tend to have parents who also show high levels of healthy perfectionism. This relationship is particularly strong when parent and child are of the same gender. Modeling and genetic factors may play a role in this.
Stoeber and Otto suggest additionally that healthy perfectionism plays a major role in education and work. It also may affect a person’s social life, family relationships, romantic partners, hobbies, recreational pursuits and religious life. In sum, Stoeber and Otto concluded from a survey of 35 studies that perfectionistic strivings in themselves are not only normal, but may be positive—if only perfectionists could focus on doing their best rather than worrying about mistakes, enjoy striving for perfection rather than being afraid of falling short of it, and concentrate on what has been achieved rather than pondering the discrepancy between what has been achieved and what might have been achieved if everything had worked out perfectly. In this form, perfectionism would be a perfectly positive disposition.
Myths of perfectionism
Over the years, a number of myths have grown up around perfection. The reality, however, is quite different. What follows is an adaptation of an analysis from the Mental Health Center at the University of Texas.
MYTH: Perfectionism is the key driver to a person’s success.
REALITY: Although some perfectionists are remarkably successful, there is no evidence that perfectionists are more successful than non-perfectionists. Indeed, there is some evidence that perfectionists perform less successfully than non-perfectionists. Performance under self-constriction typically limits achievement.
MYTH: Perfectionists are highly results-oriented people who do things right.
REALITY: As all-or-nothing thinkers, perfectionists often have problems with procrastination, deadlines and productivity.
MYTH: Perfectionists are especially effective at overcoming the obstacles to success.
REALITY: Perfectionism increases a person’s vulnerability to depression, writer’s block, performance and social anxiety. Perfectionists also tend to focus upon the final product, rather than the process, seriously hindering their efforts.
Managing your perfectionism
Like any unique personality characteristic, self-awareness can be very instructive. Perfectionistic managers will find time spent supporting their teams rather than regularly critiquing them of much value. Healthy strivers learn to set standards for themselves and others that are high but within reach. In contrast to the unhealthy, they will enjoy and learn from the process of achievement, thus enhancing their outcomes. Such gains make them especially valuable contributors.
Furthermore, these folk can learn to do productive self-talk, keeping normal anxiety and fear of failure within bounds. Easier said than done sometimes, but checking in with trusted friends and colleagues who can respond to what’s “normal and healthy” and “what’s wacko” is always of value. Reality structuring takes time and learning, but it is part of developing our identity as successful, achieving individuals. Thus reacting positively—and constructively—to criticism can drive career success.
To successfully manage potentially stressful behavior, the healthy perfectionist can also learn to reframe mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning. I view a mistake or even a failure as nothing more than an announcement of a problem still needing resolution. That perspective makes it possible to reframe and refocus on learning a different behavior. In the diametric opposite of unhealthy perfectionism, my mantra is fundamentally realistic: “You can’t succeed without failing.”
Flickr photo: Coffie House Graphics