Overcoming Perfectionism

Making mistakes is normal.

You may not agree with that if you’re a perfectionist. True, your personal drive may lead to some of your biggest accomplishments – professionally, educationally and personally. But, if you fail, make a mistake or fight for control, it can cause depression, anxiety and become harmful to your health.

However, finding a healthy balance between demanding perfection and failing to achieve it can result in great things.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s late co-founder, was widely regarded by his former colleagues as a perfectionist who learned from his mistakes.

He helped create iconic products – iPod, iPhone, MacBook computers and more – by using his drive for personal excellence to focus on solutions and strive for simplicity.

Perfection can be helpful or harmful, according to the American Psychological Association. Understanding what it is, and how and when to harness or minimize perfectionistic tendencies, could give you an advantage across many aspects of your life.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a characteristic that regards anything less than perfect, unacceptable. Those who are regarded as perfectionists strive to meet extremely high standards, judge self-worth based on achievements and refuse to accept failure.

Researchers believe there are different types of perfectionism. However, they disagree on the exact types and definitions.

Psychologists Paul Hewitt, PhD, and Gordon Flett, PhD, developed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS) in the early 90s, highlighting three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed.

  • Self-oriented perfectionists maintain strict standards, self-evaluate and have a strong motivation to succeed.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists have high expectations for the people important to them, including partners, children and co-workers.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionists believe other people have unattainably high expectations for them.

Other researchers believe there are only two types, adaptive and maladaptive. Both types share the same perfectionist tendencies. The difference between the two lies in the motivating factors, reaction to failure and psychological well-being.

Adaptive perfectionism is described as a healthy type of perfectionism. Psychologist Robert W. Hill describes adaptive perfectionists as those who are internally motivated, satisfied with life and think positively. Maladaptive perfectionists are motived by external concern over what others think of achievements or failures. Maladaptive perfectionism likely results in being overly self-critical, dissatisfied with yourself and is more likely to cause negative psychological effects.

According to a 2006 study led by psychologist Kenneth Rice, PhD, in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, findings indicated people who are maladaptive are more likely to become depressed.

Origin of Perfectionism

The origin of perfectionism also remains inconclusive. One 2012 twin study in the Depression and Anxiety journal found that maladaptive perfectionism and anxiety were both “moderately heritable,” and that genetic factors were responsible for associations between anxiety and maladaptive perfectionism.

Beyond inheriting perfectionism, it may also be related to your environment. According to a 2012 study published in the Social Behavior and Personality journal, people may be influenced by a number of factors, including family history, early messages from teachers, coaches, and peers, or messages portrayed by the media.

Some research indicates parenting styles may influence the development of perfectionism. A 2014 study published in the Social Behavior and Personality journal revealed an authoritarian parenting style was more likely associated with maladaptive characteristics, compared to authoritative parenting which “seemed to buffer people from maladaptive aspects,” the study notes. Adaptive perfectionism, however, was not linked to any of the parenting styles noted in the study.

How to Overcome Perfectionism

Although the definition and origin of perfectionism are debatable, the following traits are typically found in perfectionists:

  • A fear of failure
  • An all-or-nothing attitude
  • A need for control
  • An inability to trust
  • A defensive attitude

Recognizing these tendencies can help perfectionists use the following tactics to combat them:

  1. Focus on Progress – Remove your “all or nothing” mindset. Focus on the progress you are making with each step, rather than the completed project.
  2. Treat Yourself Better – Stop pleasing other people by trying to prove your self-worth. Also, stop attacking yourself or bossing yourself around with words like “should have” or “have to.” Reassure yourself that making mistakes is ok.
  3. Consider the Big Picture – Don’t obsess about every detail and fight for control over every decision because you think no one can do it better. Think of the big picture and do what’s necessary to achieve the best outcome, not the perfect outcome.
  4. Reshape your Environment – Cut out sources that try to reinforce your perfectionist tendencies. Review what you watch and read, including TV shows, websites and books and make sure what you’re reading and watching portrays realistic situations and people, as well as enforces positive views on life.
  5. Limit Time with Perfectionistic People – Surround yourself with people who are trying to do the best they can, rather than achieving perfection. Spend time with people who appreciate you for being you, regardless of scores, goals and perceptions of success.
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