Characteristics that Can Define Perfectionism

Monday, July 25, 2011

So, what are we referring to when we say someone is a perfectionist? Is perfectionism a behavior that includes being detail-oriented and organized? Is it an intention, like giving feedback to help improve someone’s performance and achieve a certain standard? Is it an attitude, one in which you are always concerned about not making mistakes and giving others the “right” impression of you? Or, is it about outcomes only? In other words, can you still be a perfectionist if you have a messy office? What behaviors and attitudes define perfectionism?

As a result of discussions with patients I have worked with over the years and my research on perfectionism, I’ve put together the following list of possible ways to define and describe perfectionism. Try to determine which of the following definitions might apply to you as you read through. In order to help you get a better sense of how each aspect of perfectionism operates I will also give examples of healthy and unhealthy perfectionism. At the end of this blog click on the button that takes you to a perfectionism self-assessment you can fill out.

Absence of mistakes or flaws

We often consider something to be “perfect” when we can no longer find any errors, mistakes or flaws. Copy editors, for example, review and reread manuscripts looking for spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, etc. If they don’t turn in “error free” manuscripts, they may lose their job. At the same time, you can become so preoccupied with a fear of making mistakes that you begin to miss deadlines and get burnt out.

Personal Standards

Sometimes when you’ve done something “perfectly”, it means that you achieved a particular standard you set for yourself. For example, you got A’s in your classes, which ensured a high GPA that got you into graduate school or helped you land your first job. Striving to achieve a personal standard like this can lead to increased endurance, accomplishment and feelings of satisfaction. However, when taken to an extreme, these standards can become a source of diminished self-esteem, a feeling that “nothing is ever good enough”, and a belief that you’ll never be able to achieve true “perfection.” It can also lead to a rigid adherence to following a rule: “It has to be done this way”, “It’s always been done this way”, or “Do something right or don’t do it at all.”

Meeting an Expectation

One might also define perfectionism as having matched an expectation that someone else has set. For example, let’s say that your boss informed you that you just gave an excellent presentation. As a result of this praise, you feel good about your effort and outcomes. Alternatively, however, you can also feel that others always have high standards for you – whether this is real or perceived. You worry that they’re constantly pushing you to adhere to those standards, and evaluating you negatively when you don’t. (Notice that this is different from comparing your performance to your own personal standards as mentioned earlier.)

Order and Organization

Order, organization, and having “everything in its place” is yet another way to think about perfectionism. An organized filing cabinet increases efficiency; a clean, uncluttered office is attractive to clients; and a bookshelf with books arranged by subject or author makes it easier to find things quickly. At the same time, you can become so preoccupied with order and organization that you become bogged down in creating systems and less efficient in completing projects.

Ideals and “Just Right” Experiences

Sometimes we “know” that something is ideal because it hits us “just right”; it looks, feels, and sounds right. “That was the ideal version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Everything about it sounded right.” Artists, performers, athletes, advertisers, chefs, marketers are always looking for this sweet spot of experience. Have you ever hit a tennis ball where the connection of the ball to the racket felt just right, and the ball went exactly where you wanted it to go? Or looked at a photograph where the combination of color, light, and images were so well balanced you just had to include it in your next marketing pitch or presentation? Listen to judges on the glut of reality shows for cooking, fashion, and dance. These experts always give higher scores for a harmony of experience. In short – something that is an ideal. Be careful though of looking for an ideal with everything you do. This can be unnecessary and cumbersome and draw your time, energy and resources into less important endeavors.

Absolutes: knowledge, certainty, safety

Hyperlinks on the internet are seductive, in that they seem to offer the implicit promise to tell you everything possible about a topic. To have absolute, complete, comprehensive knowledge about something – to be convinced that this is the right direction to take — is very satisfying and reassuring. Feeling that there is no risk in an activity or option – that it is completely safe – can be very comforting. While it’s a more subtle form of perfectionism, it is interesting to me how many people choose to “wait and see” rather than act in the absence of a guarantee that all will be well.

A variation on this is to chronically doubt ones actions. Some people are never sure that they’ve made the right decision, and are always second-guessing themselves even when they do act. Waiting for the “perfect solution” to present itself (i.e., one that offers absolute guarantees of only positive outcomes and an absence of negative outcomes) can be a surefire way to sit on your hands and procrastinate.

Being the best and the “best of the best”

Winning a Gold medal at the Olympics is surefire sign of recognition that you are the best in your sport. Many of us watched Michael Phelps swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics wanting him to be crowned “the best of the best”, to win the most Gold medals won by a single person in Olympic history. Western cultures are seemingly obsessed with this notion of “best of the best” — the top selling record, highest-grossing movie, or most influential scientist of all time. When running my Perfectionism group, I would usually ask the attendees what drove their perfectionism. What did they want the outcome to be, and what was all of their hard work aimed towards? My favorite answer: “I want a statue built of me.” Don’t we all? Striving to be the best can be motivating or overwhelming however. Learn to discern the difference between the two.

Now that you have familiarized yourself with the different aspects of perfectionism, click here to take the perfectionism assessment. This will help you locate yourself on the continuum between healthy perfectionism – perfectionism that pays off for you – versus unhealthy perfectionism (perfectionism that backfires).