The Two Faces of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can be positive or negative, depending upon whether you're striving to live up to your own high standards or straining to meet the expectations of others.
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Perfectionism can be positive or negative, depending upon whether you're striving to live up to your own high standards or straining to meet the expectations of others.

Most of us grow up hearing double messages about perfectionism. We're urged to do everything we can to excel in our chosen field, and rewarded for being the best.

But we're also reminded that perfectionism can lead to paralysis. Creative work inevitably involves some stumbling around, and we can't be afraid of making mistakes.

So is perfectionism — linked to early death in one disturbing study — our ally or our enemy? Newly published research suggests it all depends upon how this surprisingly complex phenomenon manifests itself in a particular individual.

Although we think of it as a singular concept, perfectionism in fact has many facets. Psychologist Robert W. Hill of Appalachian State University has been delineating its different dimensions for over a decade.

Building on earlier research, Hill argues that perfectionistic traits can be either adaptive or maladaptive. It depends upon whether they are forward- or backward-looking, emotionally positive or negative, and motivated from an inner urge or an outside push.

In a paper just published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Hill and two colleagues describe an experiment that illustrates the importance of distinguishing between types of perfectionism. They surveyed 216 psychology students to assess their perfectionistic tendencies, as well as their psychological well-being and satisfaction with life.

Adaptive perfectionism was determined by combining the students' self-reported scores in four areas: striving for excellence, organizational skills, tendency to plan ahead and holding others to high standards. Maladaptive perfectionism was measured by the sum of four other scores: concern over mistakes, need for approval, tendency to ruminate over past performances and perceived parental pressure.

"We found that adaptive perfectionism was associated with indicators of positive psychological outcomes," Hill reports. "The more an individual was prone to striving for excellence, planning ahead, being organized, they typically had a high level of psychological well-being, life satisfaction and positive mood. The inverse was true for maladaptive perfectionism."

Hill found a "wide distribution" of these traits in the test subjects, suggesting that most people have some combination of adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. He would like therapists, school counselors and parents to be more aware of the distinction, given that one type of perfectionism can be profitably promoted, while the other can be toxic.

"Adaptive perfectionism is an internal standard for achievement," he notes. "Maladaptive perfectionism is an external concern - wondering what other people are going to think. It's kind of a thinking habit: 'I made a mistake there.' 'Someone will notice I didn't do that right.' We know from a number of studies that cognitive behavioral therapy can change or reduce those kinds of thoughts."

While he doesn't personally suffer from extreme perfectionism, Hill finds it a fascinating area of study. "We can all relate to it, I think," he says. "The concept is relevant to our lives on a daily basis."

"I struggle with this as a parent," he adds. "When my kids bring home report cards and they're not all As, how much grief do I give them?

"Kids need to get the message, 'You need to have high standards, but you don't need to be perfect.' If you have unreachable goals and you're constantly dissatisfied with yourself, you can be miserable. Unequivocally, you don't want a parent who is constantly criticizing, so the child develops a self-scrutiny that always finds fault with their own performance."

One might even call that a perfect way to screw up your kids.

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