The Good and the Bad Side of Perfectionism

Whether a child or an adult, most of us can relate to a time that we felt anxiety in getting something ‘right’, or even more so, ‘perfect’ - it could have been a sand castle that, as a child, we wanted to show off to our parents, or an art masterpiece in primary school, or an assignment or letter that just didn’t read as well as it should. Either way, most of us can relate to something just not working out to plan. Would this make us a perfectionist? Well, it would probably depend on how frequent this happens and the intensity of it. As human beings, it’s normal to want to succeed and do our best. So, is there a bad side to perfectionism?

Perfectionism is understood to be a multidimensional facet and quality – it can be good or bad.  Being a perfectionist can provide great benefits, especially when spectacular work is provided and there are always high achieving results. However, perfectionism can become an issue when it is causing a great deal of anxiety and stress, in such cases, even decreasing the ability to learn new things and produce high quality work due to the anxiety surrounding it. It begins to be a negative and burdensome character trait, most of the time impacting on mental health and wellbeing. 

In order to support mental health and wellbeing, it is important to recognise the difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. This will allow us to encourage healthy, adaptive perfectionism, and support with decreasing maladaptive perfectionism mindset in order to cope with challenges in a constructive way.

Some signs to look out for in maladaptive perfectionism:

  •  Dwelling on the mistakes made and focusing on imperfections, instead of seeing it as a way to improve and do better next time.

  • Comparing self to others constantly. Believing that others are better at things that you want to be good at.

  • Getting visibly upset and distressed about making a mistake. This can happen in the context of getting a lower grade than a peer and reacting in a teary or angry way, or doing a presentation for work and noticing a small mistake in a slide show that then causes noticeable frustration.

  • Procrastinating on work until there’s certain it’s up to standard. The thought of completing work that may be not ‘perfect’ is so terrifying that you would rather not do the work at all in case this is the outcome of it.

  • Socially withdrawn, especially when thinking work is done poorly. It’s common to socially isolate from friends or family due to the shame and fear of not doing as well as you would like to.

4 tips on how to be a ‘healthy’ perfectionist:

  1. Be kinder to yourself: Although getting good results is important, a healthy perfectionist will to beat themselves up over a set back, nor will they care about criticism from others. It is important to acknowledge you could have done better, but that it doesn’t make you any worse than others. give yourself a break and try again.

  2. Change mindset: Focus on the positive aspect of the experience. For example, instead of thinking ‘how did I spell that word wrongly, now my entire assignment is worthless’, you can think ‘I managed to spell everything correctly expect one word which somehow got missed, that’s okay, I still got a good grade on the assignment, next time I’ll just be more careful with spelling’ - you are directing your thought to positive which is helping with making goals rather than focusing on failure.

  3. Separate work from the rest of you: Seeing your life as a whole and not aspects of all small things in it can help with not getting stuck on one thing going wrong. Balancing yourself and your time, and being able to say this is me at work but this doesn’t just define me is important.

  4. Create your own happiness (outside of achievements): This basically means, be happy! Being happy can actually improve performance, because not only motivation will follow, but if the overall goal of being ‘perfect’ and achieving high is to be happy, then you are already one step closer to the ‘overall goal’.

If perfectionism is becoming a problem and is impacting your life or a loved one’s life, then give us a call to make an appointment with one of our team of Psychologists.