Perfectionism (psychology)

Perfectionism (psychology)

Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that a state of completeness and flawlessness can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At such levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief, and psychologists typically refer to such individuals as maladaptive perfectionists.



Hamachek describes two types of perfectionism. Normal perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a painstaking effort" while neurotic perfectionists are "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things [well] enough to warrant that feeling of satisfaction". Burns defines perfectionists as "people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment".[1]

Greenspon considers perfectionism to be unitary combination of a desire to be perfect, a fear of imperfection, and an emotional conviction that perfection (not “near-perfection”) is the only route to personal acceptance by others. Perfectionism itself is thus never seen as healthy or adaptive.[2]

In the book Too Perfect, the authors describe perfectionists as having obsessive personality types. The obsessive personality type is distinct from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); OCD is a clinical disorder that may be associated with specific ritualized behavior. According to Mallinger and DeWyze, perfectionists are obsessives who need to feel in control at all times to protect themselves and ensure their own safety. By being constantly vigilant and trying extremely hard, they can ensure that they not only fail to disappoint or are beyond reproach but that they can protect against unforeseen issues (such as economic downturn). Vigilance may include constant monitoring of the news, weather, and financial markets.[3]

Perfectionism is one of the 16 Personality Factors identified by Raymond Cattell, and its descriptors of High Range are "organized, compulsive, self-disciplined, socially precise, exacting will power, control, self-sentimental". In the Big Five personality traits, perfectionism is an extreme of conscientiousness and can provoke increasing neuroticism as the perfectionist's expectations are not met. Perfectionists always put their goals ahead of everything.[4]

Stoeber & Otto (2006) recently reviewed the various definitions and measures of perfectionism. They found that perfectionism comprised two main dimensions: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings are associated with positive aspects and perfectionistic concerns with negative aspects (see below). Healthy perfectionists rate high in perfectionistic strivings and low in perfectionistic concerns, whereas unhealthy perfectionists rate highly in both strivings and concerns.[5]

Greenspon makes a distinction between perfectionism and striving for excellence.[6][7][8][9] The difference is in the meaning given to mistakes. Those who strive, however intently, for excellence can simply take mistakes (imperfections) as inducements to further learning and work. Unhealthy perfectionists take mistakes as signs of personal defects that make them less acceptable. Anxiety over potential failure is the reason perfectionism is felt as a burden.


Hewitt & Flett (1991) devised the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS), which rates three aspects of perfectionistic self-presentation: self oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism.[10]

Slaney and his colleagues (1996) created the Almost Perfect Scale-Revised (APS-R),[11] which contains three variables: High Standards, Order, and Discrepancy. It distinguishes between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. The APS-R is often used to categorize people into adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists. Both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists rate highly in Standards and Order, but maladaptive perfectionists also rate highly in Discrepancy. Two other forms of the APS-R measure perfectionism directed towards intimate partners (Dyadic Almost Perfect Scale) and perceived perfectionism from one's family (Family Almost Perfect Scale).

Personality type

Daniels & Price (2000) refer to perfectionists as "ones". Perfectionists are focused on personal integrity and can be wise, discerning and inspiring in their quest for the truth. They also tend to dissociate themselves from their flaws or what they believe are flaws (such as negative emotions) and can become hypocritical and hypercritical of others, seeking the illusion of virtue to hide their own vices. The greatest fear of perfectionists is to be flawed and their ultimate goal is perfection.[12]

Positive aspects

Perfectionism can drive people to accomplishments and provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. Roedell (1984) argues:

"In a positive form, perfectionism can provide the driving energy which leads to great achievement. The meticulous attention to detail, necessary for scientific investigation, the commitment which pushes composers to keep working until the music realises the glorious sounds playing in the imagination, and the persistence which keeps great artists at their easels until their creation matches their conception all result from perfectionism."[13]

Slaney and his colleagues found that adaptive perfectionists had lower levels of procrastination than non-perfectionists. High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. For example, Michelangelo's perfectionism may have spurred him to create masterpieces such as the statue David and the Sistine Chapel. On the other hand, there is little evidence that Michelangelo was in fact a perfectionist, and research tends to show that the anxiety associated with concerns about making mistakes tends to interfere with performance rather than aid it.[14] Many perfectionists can be successful despite their perfectionism.

In the field of positive psychology an adaptive and healthy variation of perfectionism is referred to as Optimalism. Only when taken too far does optimalism become maladaptive and neurotic.[15]

Perfectionism is sometimes associated with giftedness in children. The only well-designed study of this issue, however, found this not to be the case.[16] Gifted children like other children may be perfectionists; the energy and striving for excellence they exhibit are not in themselves perfectionistic.

Negative aspects

In its pathological form, perfectionism can be very damaging. It can take the form of procrastination when it is used to postpone tasks ("I can't start my project until I know the 'right' way to do it."), and self-deprecation when it is used to excuse poor performance or to seek sympathy and affirmation from other people ("I can't believe I don't know how to reach my own goals. I must be stupid; how else could I not be able to do this?").[citation needed]

In the workplace, perfectionism is often marked by low productivity as individuals lose time and energy on attention to detail and small irrelevant details of larger projects or mundane daily activities. This can lead to depression, alienated colleagues, and a greater risk of workplace "accidents."[17] Adderholt-Elliot (1989) describes five characteristics of perfectionist students and teachers which contribute to underachievement: procrastination, fear of failure, the all-or-nothing mindset, paralysed perfectionism, and workaholism.[18] In intimate relationships, unrealistic expectations can cause significant dissatisfaction for both partners.[19] Greenspon [8] lists behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that typically characterize perfectionism.

Perfectionists can suffer anxiety and low self-esteem. Perfectionism is a risk factor for obsessive compulsive personality disorder, eating disorders, social anxiety, social phobia, body dysmorphic disorder, workaholism, self harm, and clinical depression as well as physical problems like chronic stress, and heart disease.[citation needed].

Perfectionism sheds light on people's desire for structure and guidance. They tend to work well in structured environments where they can pay close attention to details. Other people, typically more entrepreneurial and creative, work well in flexible environments and are able to focus on broad issues. The latter generally show greater leadership qualities and find it easier to inspire colleagues and command their respect within a workplace. A Perfectionist will find it difficult to command respect and tend ultimately to alienate colleagues in the workplace.

Therapists attempt to tackle the negative thinking that surrounds perfectionism, in particular the "all-or-nothing" thinking in which the client believes that an achievement is either perfect or useless. They encourage clients to set realistic goals and to face their fear of failure.[citation needed]

Since perfectionism is a self esteem issue based on emotional convictions about what one must do to be acceptable as a person, negative thinking is most successfully addressed in the context of a recovery process which directly addresses these emotional convictions.[20]


Narcissism can be considered as a self-perceived form of perfectionism - "an insistence on perfection in the idealized self-object and the limitless power of the grandiose self. These are rooted in traumatic injuries to the grandiose self."[21]

Narcissists often are pseudo-perfectionists and require being the center of attention and create situations where they will receive attention.[22] This attempt at being perfect is cohesive with the narcissist's grandiose self-image. If a perceived state of perfection isn't reached it can lead to guilt, shame, anger or anxiety because he/she believes that he/she will lose the imagined love and admiration from other people if he/she isn’t perfect.[23]

See also


  1. ^ Parker, W. D.; Adkins, K. K. (1994), "Perfectionism and the gifted", Roeper Review 17 (3): 173–176, doi:10.1080/02783199509553653 
  2. ^ Greenspon, T.S. (2008). Making sense of error: A view of the origins and treatment of perfectionism. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 62, (3), 263-282.
  3. ^ Mallinger, A.; DeWyze, J. (1992), Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, New York: Fawcett Columbine 
  4. ^ Cattell, H.; Mead, A. (2008), "The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF)", The SAGE Handbook of Personality Theory and Assessment 2: 135–159 
  5. ^ Stoeber, J.; Otto, K. (2006), "Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges", Personality and Social Psychology Review 10 (4): 295–319, doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr1004_2, PMID 17201590 
  6. ^ Greenspon, T.S. (2008). Making sense of error: A view of the origins and treatment of perfectionism. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 62, (3), 263-282
  7. ^ Greenspon, T.S. (2007)What to do when good enough isn’t good enough: The real deal on perfectionism. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.
  8. ^ a b Greenspon, T.S. (2002) Freeing Our Families From Perfectionism. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.
  9. ^ Greenspon, T.S. (2000). “Healthy perfectionism” is an oxymoron! Reflections on the psychology of perfectionism and the sociology of science. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, XI,197–208.
  10. ^ Hewitt, P.; Flett, G. (1991), "Dimensions of Perfectionism in Unipolar Depression", Journal of Abnormal Psychology 100 (1): 98–101, doi:10.1037/0021-843X.100.1.98, PMID 2005279, 
  11. ^ Slaney, R.B.; Rice, K.G.; Mobley, M.; Trippi, J.; Ashby, J.S. (2001), "The Revised Almost Perfect Scale", Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development 34 (3): 130–145, 
  12. ^ Daniels, M.D., D.; Price, PhD, V. (2000), The Essential Enneagram, New York: HarperCollins 
  13. ^ Roedell, W.C. (1984), "Vulnerabilities of highly gifted children", Roeper Review 6 (3): 127–130, doi:10.1080/02783198409552782 
  14. ^ Burns, D.D. (1980, November). The perfectionist’s script for self– defeat. Psychology Today, 14,(6), 34 –52.
  15. ^ Neimark, Jill (May 2007), "The Optimism Revolution", Psychology Today: 1–3,, retrieved July 1, 2011. 
  16. ^ Parker, W. D., & Mills, C. J. (1996). The incidence of perfectionism in gifted students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 40(4), 194-199.
  17. ^ Psychology Today (1995, May), "Perfectionism: Impossible Dream", Psychology Today, 
  18. ^ Adderholt-Elliot, M. (1989), "Perfectionism and underachievement", Gifted Child Today 12 (1): 19–21 
  19. ^ # Allen, C. (2003, May), "The Perfectionist's Flawed Marriage", Psychology Today, 
  20. ^ Greenspon, T.S. (2008). Making sense of error: A view of the origins and treatment of perfectionism. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 62, (3), 263-282.
  21. ^ Cooper, "Introduction" p. xxxiv
  22. ^ Stephens, Laura (June 2005). "Narcissistic Personality Disorder". Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin. 
  23. ^ Sorotzkin, Benzion (18 Apr 2006). "The Quest for Perfection: Avoiding Guilt or avoiding shame?". Psychology Today. 

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