What Perfectionism IS, and what it IS NOT

Woman looking at herself in a mirror.

Perfectionism, a reflection of how the self is perceived by others. An attempt on a better understanding of what it really is

So, perfectionism … 

It has become quite the buzz word in the self-development, self-improvement, and self-help world. But what is this term perfectionism really, and what is it not? 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, perfectionism is defined as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.” 

But I find this definition to be somewhat limiting and does not highlight the core of perfectionism, which is a deep-rooted sense of shame. An internalized belief that one is inherently flawed, and therefore, not worthy of love or acceptance. So, I would rather define perfectionism as a personality vulnerability which is characterized by the setting extremely high, even unobtainable, standards for oneself and others which are fueled by an internalised sense of shame. Perfectionists tend to fear failure, judgement, ridicule, and even success. These fears, which Corey Wilks captures so greatly in his article The Four Horsemen of fear, are always accompanied by a persistent hypercritical relationship with the self. 

What I would consider the most important thing to know about Perfectionism is that it is a personality trait which is present in all of us! In some people, just like for introversion and extraversion, the trait can be very low and others it can be very high. When perfectionism leans towards the extremely high end it is said to be maladaptive, or harmful. This is where the trait starts to play a role in other mental health disorders like mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. 

Perfectionists do not only fear failure but feel like a failure. As stated so beautifully by Brené Brown, perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels the primary thought: if I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame. Perfectionists want to be perceived as perfect; however, this is in and of itself unattainable as no single human can ever be perfect for perfection does not exist! 

It all goes wrong when people misattribute having high standards as being a perfectionist. Setting high standards and goals for oneself and having an internal drive to succeed can be very valuable and beneficial. However, this is not perfectionism. Perfectionism is dysfunctional, destructive, exhausting, and tormenting. It is not about healthy personal development. It is underscored by a person’s belief of themselves as being inherently flawed, and therefore, they have to constantly keep up a facade of being perfect. This is exhausting! To perfectionists, achievements and self-worth go hand-in-hand. They feel empty without any validation and achievement. So, perfectionism is not just a way of behaving in the world, it’s a way of being in the world

So, let’s define what maladaptive perfectionism is… 

What is maladpative (harmful) perfectionism?

Maladaptive perfectionism is a form of perfectionism that is characterized by unrealistic expectations and an inability to accept mistakes. It can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety when mistakes are made or goals are not achieved. People with maladaptive perfectionism tend to be overly critical of themselves and others, set rigid standards for themselves and others, and have difficulty relaxing or enjoying activities. Additionally, they may strive for perfection in areas where it is not necessary or even possible. Maladaptive perfectionism can lead to significant distress in life, as well as physical health problems due to stress.

So, not only does perfectionism present itself as being adaptive (healthy) or maladaptive (harmful) but it also comes in three flavours (i.e., types). These are:

Types of Perfectionism

There are three types of perfectionism that are commonly discussed in the literature, namely: 

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism, which occurs when individuals strive for perfection in their own performance and personal standards.
  2. Socially prescribed perfectionism, which occurs when individuals feel pressure from others to achieve perfection.
  3. Other-oriented perfectionism, which occurs when individuals strive for perfection in order to please or satisfy others. 

Each type of perfectionism can have a significant impact on an individual’s life.

Unfortunately, in today’s modern, success drive era, perfectionism often gets dressed up in high heels. People admire those who push themselves to these unrealistic standards and maintain this perceived sense of perfection. It all looks very appealing and inspirational from the outside. But, as any perfectionist would vouch to, it’s a heavy shield to carry. 

So now that you have a better understanding of what perfectionism IS, what IS IT NOT? Harmful perfectionism IS NOT… 

  • a formal mental disorder
  • a preference for having things orderly or obsessing over details
  • a badge of honour 
  • a way of behaving at times, or a trait that shows up here and there
  • a strive for self-improvement or personal growth 
  • a virtue to achieve success, in fact, it sabotages it

In an upcoming article I will discuss the costs of harmful perfectionism and why it wrecks so much havoc on people’s lives, as well as how it can be addressed. 


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