These thoughts are constantly terrorizing my clients, whether they are doctors, IT specialists, financial managers, athletes, students, or executives. They feel paralyzed, unable to move forward, fearing failure, losing sleep, and their sanity due to overwhelming stress as they strive for perfection.

You cannot tell high-performers that their goals are too high, that they should work less, or that they expect too much from themselves and others. Becoming a high performer requires a strong desire to excel in everything you do.

Some high-performers take pride in being perfectionists, while others view it as a detrimental trait they cannot escape. Some are unsure of how to perceive it.
Is perfectionism harmful or something to strive for?
By Inga Stasiulionyte
Are you excited about your goals, or
do you constantly fear failure?
"I don't want to disappoint the people who entrusted me with this project. I need to get this right."
"I don't trust others to do it to my standards."
"I am not perfect for this new position that I always wanted."
"I just want to get things done perfectly."
Perfectionism is broadly defined as a tendency to set unrealistically high standards of performance, striving for flawlessness, and characterized by biased and overcritical evaluations of the self and others.
(Hewitt & Flett, 1991)
Perfectionism definition
3 primary perfectionism orientations
  • Self-oriented perfectionism. Individuals who exhibit self-oriented perfectionism are obsessed with attaining perfection, maintaining unrealistic expectations of themselves, and subjecting themselves to harsh self-criticism. They are motivated by an intrinsic desire to establish exceptionally high standards and pursue unrealistic goals. Although individuals with this personality trait often experience high levels of productivity, it frequently leads to burnout, self-doubt, anxiety, and a persistent sense of dissatisfaction.

  • Socially prescribed perfectionism. Individuals believe that their social context is excessively demanding, with others judging them harshly and expecting them to be flawless. They feel compelled to display perfection to secure approval or achieve success. This type of person often obsesses over what others are thinking and frequently equates being perfect with deserving love.

  • Other-oriented perfectionism. Individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them and then become overly critical if those goals aren't achieved.
2 key perfectionism focus areas that determine our journey towards high achievement or disastrous stagnation
Perfectionism could be beneficial, but it can also be considered a serious psychological illness that can lead to eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, psychosomatic syndromes, anxiety disorders, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

Personal standards perfectionism (PSP) focuses on achieving high standards with self-determined goals, driven by intrinsic motivation while enjoying the process of attaining challenging objectives. It also involves acknowledging and accepting self-weaknesses and limitations, with self-worth not tied to goals or the pursuit of perfection. PSP often results in the timely completion of goals.

Evaluative concerns perfectionism (ECP) focuses on the fear of making mistakes and failure. Goals are imposed, and success is determined by whether they are accepted, valued, or rewarded by others. Thoughts are inflexible, characterized by catastrophizing and extreme black-and-white thinking, mainly centered on avoiding errors. Self-worth is strongly tied to being perfect. ECP can lead to procrastination, anxiety, and burnout.
4 tendencies of high and low standards and fear of failure: the 2×2 Gaudreau and Thompson model
  1. HIGH standards and LOW fear of failure = ADAPTIVE perfectionism
  2. HIGH standards and HIGH fear of failure = MIXED perfectionism
  3. LOW standards and LOW fear of failure = NON-perfectionism
  4. LOW standards and HIGH fear of failure = MALADAPTIVE perfectionism
Adaptive and mixed perfectionists tend to have more motivation to improve their performance than non-perfectionists. However, non-perfectionists tend to outperform perfectionists who are highly concerned about mistakes. Some researchers prefer adaptive perfectionism, while others have demonstrated the effectiveness of mixed perfectionism in facilitating faster learning from mistakes, thereby ensuring faster growth and higher-level development.

"Our findings are in line with the hypothesis that perfectionists with high concerns but low standards avoid performance monitoring to avoid the worry-inducing nature of detecting personal failure and the anticipation of poor evaluation by others. However, the stronger goal-oriented performance motivation of perfectionists with high concerns and high standards may have led to less avoidance of error processing and more intense involvement with the imperfect behavior, which is essential for improving future performance."
(Barke, 2017)
When perfectionism could be good?
Seeking flawlessness and pursuing unattainable standards only work for those who use that stress as energy to propel themselves forward. The key is to continually monitor ourselves and remain aware of how we think, feel, and act when we set exceptionally high goals for ourselves. Do we become excited about them, or do we become consumed by worries about potential failures?
When perfectionism is deeply dangerous?
  • Obsessing over mistakes. Obsessing over mistakes is essential for progress. Recognizing our mistakes and working to improve them is a crucial step toward perfection. However, when we become overly fixated on our errors, our confidence wanes, and we begin to seek excuses to avoid performing at all costs, which hinders our progress. The fear of failure can lead us down a path toward serious psychological illnesses, including eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

  • Self-worth is attached to perfectionism. The biggest danger lies in persistent negative self-criticism and feelings of conditional self-acceptance.

  • The concern with the opinions of others. Trying to be seen as perfect by others and being afraid of their judgment.
How to make perfectionism perfect?
Perfectionists are always playing with fire. Avoiding getting burned requires a high level of self-awareness and mastery of self-regulation techniques:

  • Define in more concrete terms what perfectionism means to you. Your self-worth should not be determined by the pursuit of perfection. Leave room for surprises and unknown possibilities to capitalize on. What is perfect for you might not be perfect for others, and perhaps your idea of perfection isn't as perfect as you think.

  • Set optimal and controllable steps towards perfection. Every goal should be led by a learning objective for you to achieve.

  • List your strengths and consider how they can be applied to the desired performance. Refer to this list, especially when your confidence level is declining.

  • Give yourself time to learn. Track how much time your body needs to learn a new behavior or situation. Recognize the learning experiences required to adopt a new behavior. Based on this data, manage your expectations of yourself.

  • Keep asking yourself: where is your focus? Your focus should be on the process of achieving goals rather than fearing mistakes. Create a list of how many mistakes it is reasonable to make to aid your learning and adaptation before considering major changes to your approach.

  • Track the intensity levels of judgment from yourself and others. Understand your optimal stress level for peak performance and maintain a list of techniques that work for you to regulate it.

  • Determine your fatigue levels. When we are tired, our ability to evaluate things objectively diminishes. Mixed perfectionists need to prioritize their recovery strategies to effectively manage the high intensities of performance experiences.

  • If you find yourself getting stuck with details in pursuit of perfection, broaden your perspective by reminding yourself of the bigger purpose behind your striving.

  • Create a support team for yourself.

  • Celebrate your learnings. Make a conscious effort to celebrate your efforts and accomplishments.

  • Ask yourself often if you are having fun?!

Mistakes are a part of our growth; to fear them is to fear growth. Perfectionism hurts those the most who perceive making mistakes as being a mistake. We are perfectly imperfect humans; we do not need fixing, but we can always improve who we are and what we do.

"Artisan, who rendered the realm of perfect, eternal Ideas into its imperfect copy, the world we experience. Here, the concept of the world as a work of art is explicit."
Frank Wilczek

Fibonacci Sequence in Leonardo da Vinci's, Mona Lisa, 1503, Louvre Museum
  • Barke, A., Bode, S., Dechent, P., Schmidt-Samoa, C., Van Heer, C. & Stahl, J. (2017). To err is (perfectly) human: behavioural and neural correlates of error processing and perfectionism. SOCIAL COGNITIVE AND AFFECTIVE NEUROSCIENCE, 12 (10), pp.1647–1657.
  • Weinberg, Robert S.; Gould, Daniel S.. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (2018). Human Kinetics, Inc.
  • Ruggeri, A. (2018) The dangerous downsides of perfectionism. BBC
  • Robert W. Hill, Timothy J. Huelsman, R. Michael Furr, Jason Kibler, Barbara B. Vicente & Christopher Kennedy (2004) A New Measure of Perfectionism: The Perfectionism Inventory, Journal of Personality Assessment
  • Benson, E. (2003) The many faces of perfectionism
  • Swider, B., Harari, D., Breidenthal, A., Steed, L. (2018) The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism, According to Research, HBR
  • Curran, T., Hill, A. (2018) Perfectionism Is Increasing, and That's Not Good News, HBR
  • Harari, D., Swider, B. W., Steed, L. B., & Breidenthal, A. P. (2018). Is perfect good? A meta-analysis of perfectionism in the workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(10), 1121–1144.
  • Ocampo, ACG, Wang, L, Kiazad, K, Restubog, SLD, Ashkanasy, NM. The relentless pursuit of perfectionism: A review of perfectionism in the workplace and an agenda for future research. J Organ Behav. 2020; 41: 144– 168.
  • Stoeber, J., Damian, L. E., & Madigan, D. J. (2018). Perfectionism: A motivational perspective. In J. Stoeber (Ed.), The psychology of perfectionism: Theory, research, applications (p. 19–43). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Stoeber, J., Hutchfield, J., & Wood, K. V. (2008). Perfectionism, self-efficacy, and aspiration level: Differential effects of perfectionistic striving and self-criticism after success and failure. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(4), 323–327.
  • Stoeber, J. (2012). Perfectionism and performance. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (p. 294–306). Oxford University Press.
Read Next
Get coached by email!
Receive a bi-weekly Monday newsletter designed to help you develop an Olympian mindset, enabling you to push your performance and leadership abilities beyond their limits. Start your week with clarity, confidence, empowerment, and purpose.
© 2024 Gyvenimas Sielai MB. All Rights Reserved.