Has anyone ever told you that you are a perfectionist? Or that you are a terrible perfectionist? 🙂 Were you proud of it? Or not at all? Or do you think that about yourself? And what does it actually mean to be a perfectionist?
Today, we are very fond of labeling ourselves and others as different -ists, -ers, or -aks, so it is not uncommon for many of us to label ourselves or others as perfectionists or to decline the word perfectionism. The context of perfectionistic behavior, the motivation behind it, and its consequences are fascinating to some, providing them with a certain status, while causing various difficulties or troubles for others.
Certainly, we can now take a closer look at all of this together.
We often say “that’s perfect!” and we mean that it’s favorable, great, or excellent. In reality, the word “perfect” (originally from Latin) has the same meaning as “flawless,” “complete,” or “fully developed.”
To be perfect, then, means to be flawless. To be so fully developed that nothing else needs to be added or subtracted. Perfectionism, therefore, has to do with perfection.
No one is perfect, right?
Intuitively, we all know that no one is perfect, even if we label someone as a perfectionist – someone who cares deeply about everything being “tip-top,” who never makes a mistake, and who wants everything to turn out exactly as they envision it.
What do psychologists say about it?
Although psychologists who study perfectionism (including leading figures such as Slaney and Ashby, Hewitt and Flett, and Frost and his team) do not always agree on everything, they generally agree that perfectionism involves excessive efforts to achieve flawlessness/perfection while setting unrealistically high standards for oneself.
According to Frost, what defines a perfectionist is how high their self-imposed standards are, how much they focus on keeping things in order, how much they doubt the tasks they have completed, and to what extent their parents and loved ones have (or had) high expectations for them. Hewitt and Flett, on the other hand, differentiate between three types of perfectionism based on whether we set high standards for ourselves, whether others set them for us, or whether we impose them on others.
A great discussion has arisen in professional circles regarding whether perfectionism is actually a positive or negative phenomenon. On the one hand, many studies have pointed to the association of perfectionism (mainly concerns about mistakes, self-doubt, high levels of criticism) with phenomena such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and others. However, there have also been studies and analyses that have shown that this association is not always so clear-cut – that some components can actually be beneficial – for example, setting high goals and striving to achieve them, being organized, and striving to minimize errors. One group of authors thus adopted a division of perfectionism into positive and negative (also healthy and unhealthy). What distinguishes them is that people with negative perfectionism are overly critical of themselves even when they have achieved their goals, while positive perfectionists are able to feel satisfaction from their achieved performance.
A fundamental opponent of such a distinction was Greenspon. He argued that healthy perfectionism is actually a paradox, an oxymoron. That they exclude each other. He pointed out that the conclusions of many researchers arose from a mistaken interpretation of research findings, namely that so-called healthy perfectionism was not so strongly associated with negative phenomena, but was not in a positive relationship with beneficial ones either. In other words, the fact that someone does not exhibit symptoms of depression due to their high demands on themselves does not mean that their quality of life is higher due to these high demands on themselves. According to him, this is not supported by research either. He also drew attention to a very serious circumstance – the motivation of a perfectionist is not to achieve the goal itself and the joy of performance, but to fulfill the expectations of others, to gain their love, favor, and acceptance, which they did not receive sufficiently in key developmental stages. It is not something that increases a person’s quality of life. It is an alternative way to secure basic needs for a healthy life, which in reality were not (and are not) naturally fulfilled for them.
Dependencies, their causes, and their disguises
So what is the tragedy of perfectionism? Simply put, it is that it is a less nourishing substitute for real sustenance. It is a patch for what we all need to receive at certain points in order to grow and develop healthily. If we did not receive this and yet still want to function in the world, it becomes a (psychological) life-or-death question to find a replacement.
Herein lies the explanation for the mechanism of various dependencies. Whether disguised as an addiction to substances, food, other people, work, achieving perfection, or constantly performing better and better…
A person who is missing something very important on a deep level will try to replace it in a different way. Dependency therefore exists because it has something to heal and in some way protects us.
The four basic human needs that must be fulfilled in order for us to have a healthy sense of self, our identity, are:
-PROTECTION(establishing boundaries, respect)
-BELONGING (feeling like we belong somewhere)
If we do not have these needs sufficiently fulfilled (which usually happens in early childhood), we try to ensure that we replace them as much as possible. Perfectionism is, from this perspective, one of the strategies that some people have learned to use in order to ensure sufficient recognition and favor from others. Because they have noticed that others admire or acknowledge them for certain achievements. But they themselves do not feel that they have value, that they deserve respect, or that they belong somewhere unless they demonstrate flawless performance, perfectly accomplished tasks, and perfect results at any cost.
The problem with perfection
However, there is a catch. What does it actually mean to be perfect and achieve perfection?
No one is perfect. We are “only” human. And yet, we are all perfect exactly as we are – because how could you be better than you already are in the given moment and in the given place?
Wait, isn’t that a paradox? Well, it depends on the perspective we choose. But that’s far beyond the scope of this article. If we were to accept either of these two premises, then relentless perfectionist striving for perfection would make no sense anyway.
If no one can ever be perfect from their human nature, then we cannot expect to become perfect. And if we are already perfect as we are, then we do not need to strive for it.
So where is the tragedy of perfectionism? It lies in the fact that perfectionism mistakenly believes that the unrealistic ideal that it has conjured up (and believes will bring it the recognition and love it lacks) is identical to perfection. Moreover, it arrogantly believes that this ideal is achievable. Perfectionism is therefore fundamentally unrealistic. And at the same time, it maintains a firm conviction of its feasibility. And that’s why it is a perfect trap.
In the words of Greenspon: “Perfectionism is a wound; it is never healthy and may never fully heal.”
But what now?
If you have made it this far, and if you have found something of yourself or others in the previous description, I bet you are now saying to yourself (perhaps even a little scared): “Okay, but what now?”
First of all, don’t panic 🙂 If you have noticed something of the above in yourself or others, give it (kind) attention and try to accept it as a reality without judgment.
The goal of this article is certainly not for someone armed with new definitions to go out and stick a perfectionist label on everyone who strives for something. Not every effort is necessarily perfectionistic.
Understanding perfectionism may not even bring about anything so groundbreaking externally. Entrenched patterns of behavior (and survival) are so strong that even if some of them are destroying individuals (e.g., in the form of various addictions), they cannot get rid of them because they simply have no healthier alternative and do not know one. That, too, is okay. But if their perception changes, that is enough.
And what can those who decide to take their perfectionism into their own hands do? Whether alone or with the support of loved ones or a psychotherapist, they can:
- become aware of and examine their perfectionism and what it brings and takes from them
- become aware of what they are missing in life and how it manifests itself
- examine how they perceive their own value and how they themselves fulfill the needs of recognition, respect, love, and acceptance (or how they could fulfill them from now on)
- learn to live in imperfection and not demand its perfection
- do whatever they can in the given moment and circumstances, as best as they can (not perfectly, but the best in the given moment).
And to avoid any misunderstandings, we have listed a few examples in five points as inspiration for what one can do when dealing with perfectionism. Perfectionism and working with it are neither a gift nor a curse. However, it is a lifelong journey. So let’s not expect ourselves (or others) to embark on it.