It’s 10:00 pm and Angela’s eyelids are drooping, but she’s still at the office working on a presentation for the following morning. Back at home, Caleb protests as his dad closes his son’s computer and tells him his project is good enough. It’s time for bed.
Whether you’re a professional or a student, you’ve been under a time crunch for a project you needed to nail. But these cases are a little different. Angela’s boss already confirmed her slides were ready to go before he left the office at 5:00 pm, and Caleb’s project is worth two percent of his final grade, and the required components have been finished for days.
Caleb and his mom are clearly perfectionists, but what about Caleb’s dad, John? John knows he holds himself to high standards and wants to do well in just about everything he does, but he makes sure he plans ahead to organize his time, and has a clear understanding of how to go above and beyond without overworking or stressing himself out. Is he a perfectionist, too?
The label of perfectionist is thrown around frequently these days, whether it be your go-to “worst weakness” in an interview or the reason you give for running late. Conflicting perspectives on whether perfectionism is a helpful or hindering trait can be confusing. Therefore, our familiarity with the term often isn’t backed by concrete understanding.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality style, meaning that it encompasses a collection of tendencies or behaviour patterns that are relatively consistent even as time passes. Two key tendencies or behaviours that define perfectionism are:
- High achievement standards and striving (perfectionists set the bar high and jump higher to achieve their often-lofty ambitions); and
- Concern over achievement and performance (worrying and intense consideration of goals, plans, and performance is an every-day reality).
While many people in the general population tend to glorify or envy perfectionist traits, early perfectionism research focused on perfectionism being disordered or unhealthy. However, with the influence of positive psychology came the revelation that perfectionism may not always be negative. A newer model proposes it can be either detrimental/unhealthy or positive/healthy.
Recent research shows that perfectionism is increasing, especially among youth. As reported in the Harvard Business Review (see resources), “data on 40,000 college students in the UK, U.S., and Canada from 1989 to 2016, shows that perfectionism is on the rise and may be to blame for increasing rates of anxiety and depression among young people.
“There is growing evidence that the increase in psychological ill-health of young people may stem from the excessive standards that they hold for themselves, and the harsh self-punishment they routinely engage in. Increasingly, young people hold irrational ideals for themselves, ideals that manifest in unrealistic expectations for academic and professional achievement, how they should look, and what they should own. Young people are seemingly internalizing a pre-eminent contemporary myth that things, including themselves, should be perfect.” The article goes on to say that “perfection is an impossible goal,” “failure is not a weakness,” “done is better than perfect,” and “there are healthier goals than perfection.”
Adaptive vs Maladaptive Perfectionism
The term ‘adaptive’ refers to how people with perfectionism adopt and experience their perfectionist traits in ways that set them up for success, while ‘maladaptive’ perfectionist traits and their outcomes create challenges in their everyday lives.
If you take all perfectionist behaviours and categorize them, negatives relate to concerns while most positives relate to exacting standards/strivings. This helps differentiate unhealthy (maladaptive) perfectionism from its healthy (adaptive) counterpart.
Both types of perfectionism involve high personal standards and strong concerns over performance, but maladaptive perfectionists have excessive concerns and get stuck in a cycle where they experience stress, fear of failure, and self-criticism, among other impacts. These prevent them from achieving their goals, or sometimes even starting on them. (See resources at end of article to learn more about impacts and the link between procrastination and perfectionism.)
Adaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, have concerns that motivate them to reach robust goals without causing negative outcomes. Remember John!
Perfectionism: Positive or Negative?
Like all things in life, perfectionism isn’t black or white. Even in research, there are unusual ways of defining and categorizing the trait. However, understanding how perfectionism becomes detrimental and reflecting on how it lines up with our own traits, gives us the power to recognize and influence how it manifests in our lives.
Our personality is influenced by many things, including both traits we inherit from our parents, other health influences, our environment, and our experiences. Fortunately, no one knows about how those things come together in our own lives better than ourselves. With self-reflection and awareness, we can use our understanding of perfectionist tendencies (see resources below) to develop and appreciate adaptive perfectionist tendencies and work to overcome harmful perfectionist patterns.
Don’t worry… you’re not alone!
If you think you may have maladaptive tendencies, don’t fret, you are not alone. As a university student, I often tend toward maladaptive patterns when I’m stressed. But I’ve realized that simply learning about perfectionism, adopting adaptive strategies, and self-reflecting are immensely helpful!
Alanna Kaser is an undergraduate psychology student passionate about mental health advocacy, science communication, working with youth, and learning new things. In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering, reading, and staying active by coaching and playing soccer. After completing her undergrad, she hopes to pursue higher education to become a clinical child psychologist and researcher.