Is Perfectionism Good Or Bad?
A new client came to see me recently and explained that he finds it very hard to decide almost anything. The more important the decision the more he agonizes.
He wants every decision to be “perfect”. He is often petrified of making a mistake. He becomes riddled with self-doubt and will frequently procrastinate. This compulsive over reflection and insanely rigid perspective shows up in all aspects of his life.
He is too critical of many of the women he has dated and not sure that his current girlfriend is “right” for him.
He strives to be perfect but winds up being ambivalent. He wonders whether he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or is really plagued by an unhealthy or maladaptive form of perfectionism.
What is Perfectionism?
Some people consider being called a perfectionist a boost to their ego. They feel it is a sign that they are perceived as someone who does excellent work. And that is sometimes true.
However, being a perfectionist should not be mistaken with being a high achiever because high achievers are not necessarily perfectionists.
Healthy And Unhealthy Perfectionism
Unhealthy (maladaptive) perfectionists struggle with impossibly high standards and inflexible goal setting. They don’t have the necessary flexibility to get the job done efficiently, especially under extreme or changing circumstances.
They are highly self-critical as well as fearful of being criticized by others. This can lead to procrastination, over analysis and indecision.
Unhealthy or maladaptive perfectionists tend to have low self-esteem.
Healthy (adaptive) perfectionists have high standards as well but are more flexible and can tolerate things being imperfect. Although they put forth extraordinary efforts to achieve their goals, they do not suffer from such harsh self-criticism.
They are more focused on achieving their objectives, not looking to perfection as their guiding principle. They are likely to be enthusiastic about projects and would therefore enjoy the process as well as the achievement of completion.
They are not tortured by the work but typically optimistic about the actions they are taking and can adjust to the obstacles that they confront.
Healthy or adaptive perfectionists tend to have high self-esteem.
Is Perfectionism Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?
No, perfectionism is not Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is a mental disorder (Anxiety Disorder) in which a person has uncontrollable, thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that compel him to repeat over and over.
The obsessive thoughts are often driven by fears and the behaviors are typically an attempt to quell those fears. For example, a fear of germs or contamination would be followed by a ritual of repeated hand washing.
Unhealthy perfectionism in its most extreme form can be associated with OCD. It is a characteristic that OCD sufferers tend to have.
Are You A Perfectionist?
Perfectionism (the unhealthy kind) is often thought to be a maladaptive way of dealing with one’s own insecurity and fears. It is not easy or comfortable but stressful and often disappointing.
Below are some characteristics of a maladaptive perfectionist. If you have some or more of these characteristics you probably have struggled to get past their limitations. You likely have been undermining your own success professionally and socially and may want to finally change those dysfunctional patterns and get control of your life.
You can be helped.
The Symptoms Of Unhealthy Perfectionism
Very critical: Unhealthy perfectionists tend to be much more critical of themselves and of others than average. Instead of taking pride in their achievements they are likely to find flaws in almost everything they (or someone else) does, despite its merits. They favor unproductive criticism.
No middle ground: Maladaptive perfectionists set high goals, often too high to achieve, thereby setting themselves up for failure. Even if the goal is somewhat accomplished, because he is so unrelentingly critical, he will think it a failure. He is an all or nothing type of thinker, thereby always falling short of satisfaction.
Fear of failure: If you think about the process you realize why perfectionists are afraid of failing. Since they are likely to be unsatisfied with their accomplishments, they are almost always seeing themselves as failing, therefore they tend to be unhappy, somber or depressed much of the time.
Procrastination: They tend to procrastinate because they will worry so much about how something will turn out that they end up in a sort of paralysis, unable to move ahead as they get consumed by always second guessing decisions.
Defensiveness: Because maladaptive perfectionists are so critical, they are not likely to take any criticism well at all. They tend to become defensive and angry with anyone offering them opinions.
Low self-esteem: Maladaptive perfectionists are often depressed or at least unhappy most of the time. They see themselves as “not perfect” and anything less than perfect is unworthy.
Inflexible: Flexibility or adaptability is a sign of good mental health and goes a long way in fostering creativity. Unhealthy perfectionists are often inflexible and unable to ease up and relax.
Overcoming Unhealthy Perfectionism
Perfectionism is not hereditary. It is typically a learned dysfunctional pattern that takes hold.
It is not in your genes so you can learn to change it by recognizing your traits and working to improve them. If you want to become a more adaptive perfectionist and less rigid read on.
Enjoy The Process: Stay in the NOW! Don’t over concern yourself with the product of your work but how well the process is going. Enjoying the process is key to success in almost any endeavor.
Do Better Goal Setting: Set goals that are simple, achievable and have clear objectives included. When you complete an objective (a step in the goal process) congratulate yourself and mean it!
Face The fear: Whenever you feel anxious about what you are doing ask yourself why. Recognize that everyone gets anxious about achieving success and that it should not cause you to become paralyzed.
Review And Celebrate Your Successes: Reflect on what you have achieved and be proud of it! Almost everyone can point to something they have worked for and achieved so don’t sell yourself short.
Welcome Constructive Criticism: Learn to take criticism, especially from people you respect, and use it to improve. Defensiveness is your enemy, learn to be open minded.
Learn To Adapt: If something is not working then try something else. Don’t let yourself get stuck in self-recriminations. Adaptability or flexibility enhances creativity and keeps your mind resilient.
So, Is Perfectionism Good Or Bad?
Clearly that depends on the type you have. If it’s adaptive it’s good. If it’s maladaptive, it’s bad.
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About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with people wanting to perform more creatively and at higher levels in both their professional and personal lives. This includes individuals, couples and business partners.