Is perfectionism a good thing or a bad thing? Some might say you cannot achieve perfection. Others might say perfect describes something accomplished in the most accurate and ideal way. It can produce many opinions. Perfectionism could mean appearing a certain way, doing a task a specific way, or living life to an unrelenting standard. This belief can seem harsh from an outsider’s perspective and difficult to be understood. One might say that themself is their worst critic, and this is what pushes them to do well. Can you relate or have you felt this way before?
Perfectionism can be both positive and negative. Let’s look at it from a strength-based lens first. High performance sometimes requires a level of precision, success, and dedication. Perfectionism as adaptive behaviors or also known as short-term actions can lead to high levels of performance. When competition is high, performance is at its peak with all performers, and it may demand perfectionism tendencies to perform under extreme pressure to get results.
From another point of view, you might have a perfectionist part of your personality that has helped you achieve new heights, be courageous and driven, get results, or get tasks done. This part of you has built this person that has become effective and reached higher levels of discipline. This part pushes you to progress and almost obsess over getting it right. In some ways, it’s gotten you to where you are now. There can be appreciation expressed for having this strength within yourself.
Let’s discuss the negative aspects that lead to challenges around perfectionism. Too much of a perfectionist mindset influences maladaptive behaviors also known as long-term actions, that are damaging to your well-being over time. This could be overtraining every day for a marathon to win the race and then causing chronic injuries to the body. In the long run, overtraining was harmful. Maladaptive behaviorisms and perfectionist beliefs are sources from a place of fear and stress. Some of the key fears around perfectionism stem from being fearful of being shamed, blamed, or judged by others.
It’s normal to want to be liked by others. Historically, we as humans survived based on being accepted and liked by others in groups to survive. Think of times as humans when we were hunters and gatherers. Our brains are biologically wired for human and social connections. However, the reality is that not everyone is going to like us and that’s okay. We can form connections based on trust, bonds, and similar interests. Finding our group or person that appreciates us for being our authentic selves.
Factors to monitor:
Become aware of how you talk to yourself. Notice if you put yourself down, have self-doubt, or automatically go to negative thoughts. As an example, a person finishes an undergraduate paper assignment and turns it in with the hopes of getting an A but then recognizes they mistyped a word. Now, the person thinks they are a failure, or they cannot do anything right. This belief impacted their feelings and reaction toward the situation. Having continuous negative self-talk or negative thoughts often causes emotional spiraling. Ultimately, nothing good comes from that toward our mental and physical health.
Risk factors caused by perfectionism:
Anxiety/depression (mental health challenges)
Excessive working (also known as being a workaholic)
Obsession with progress/productivity
Obsessive behaviors (e.g., cleanliness)
Neglecting your needs
Isolating from others
Unhealthy habits to cope
Negative impacts on relationships
Ask yourself why I am shooting for perfect. Does it come from a place of authenticity in something you want for yourself? For example, it could be “I want this sexy body so others cannot judge me, and others will like me more” or it could be “I want a sexy body that embodies health and fitness so I can perform and be energetic throughout my day”. This is an instance of perfectionism affecting body image or appearance. Perfectionism can show up in status, grades in school, sports performance, and many other ways. Check-in, pause with yourself, and reflect on your “why”.
For further assistance, working with a therapist or a sports psychologist can support you in managing the challenges around perfectionism and help you rediscover your “why”. A therapist can help you explore where did this perfectionism originate from to understand yourself better.
Conclusively, perfectionism is both good and bad. I encourage you to learn about your perfectionist part and practice self-compassion. Giving compassion and kindness to yourself gives you permission and forgiveness for being human. As we might not be able to achieve perfection, we can strive for excellence.
Kim Ernst, MSW, LCSWA