Is It Possible to Be a Perfectionist Without Driving Yourself Nuts?

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Photo: Lambert/Archive Photos/(c) Lambert/Archive Photos

Consider a recent, surprising failure: Serena Williams last week lost a match everyone assumed she’d win and, along with it, her chance at a perfect slam season. Or another, less recent example: The New England Patriots’ 2007 almost-but-not-quite perfect season. The point being, even those of us with the highest of standards sometimes fall short of perfection. Even author Michael Pollan once admitted that he sometimes slips on his own eating rules and buys his kid a box of Fruity Pebbles every once in a while.

And this brings up an interesting question: Is it possible to be a perfectionist — that is, someone with a tendency to set excessively high standards — without beating yourself up when you fall short? Because perfectionism, judging by the raft of books and listicles on the subject, is something Americans have generally decided is a negative trait. Much of the research backs this up, even going so far as to suggest that perfectionism can be potentially dangerous, leading to anxiety, depression, and, in extreme cases, possibly suicide.

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But there’s another idea concerning the characteristic, one that’s intriguing, if controversial. Maybe perfectionism isn’t one-dimensional — maybe the drive to be perfect isn’t always a bad thing. There may be, a body of research suggests, a healthy way to be a perfectionist, one that lets you reap the good associated with it — as in, chasing after the ridiculously high goals you’ve set for yourself — while neatly sidestepping the nasty self-loathing should you happen to miss your mark, and the anxiety that prevents you from ever embarking on those goals in the first place.

The main difference is that the healthy kind is internally motivated, driven by you and your own interests or curiosities. The unhealthy kind, on the other hand, comes from external pressure and is more about a fear of failure than the thrill of accomplishment. As Don E. Hamachek, the first psychologist to differentiate between the two types, put it in 1978:

Normal perfectionists set realistic standards for themselves, derive pleasure from their painstaking labors, and are capable of choosing to be less precise in certain situations. Neurotic perfectionists, on the other hand, demand of themselves a usually unattainable level of performance, experience their efforts as unsatisfactory, and are unable to relax their standards.

The different shades of perfectionism are the subject of a recent meta-analysis — scientists’ term for a study of studies — published recently in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, which examined the link between perfectionism and job burnout. In that paper, Andrew P. Hill of York St John University and Thomas Curran of the University of Bath analyzed 43 studies on the personality trait, which included a combined total of nearly 10,000 study participants.

Their results show that unhealthy perfectionists were more likely to burn out at their jobs. No big surprise there. Unhealthy perfectionists set very high goals for themselves, but are rigid and inflexible about them, unwilling to adapt to the circumstances. And they tend to set those goals and measure their success at achieving them by comparing themselves to the people around them; as a consequence, they’re also more likely to be anxious or uncertain about their own capabilities.   

But the finding in that meta-analysis didn’t hold true for the healthy perfectionists; in fact, in some cases, healthy perfectionism seemed to protect against the risk of burning out, the study authors discovered. “Our findings suggest that one element of perfectionism, the tendency to set exceedingly high goals and strive for them, is not in isolation a problem,” Hill said in an email to Science of Us. “In fact, if you set high goals and achieve them, you will feel motivated and good about yourself.” And it’s these factors, their analysis suggested, that seemed to protect the individuals against burnout.   

The brighter side of perfectionism has also been associated with many other good things, such as cheerier moods and a stronger sense of autonomy. And yet, interestingly, it’s not always linked with higher actual achievements. Take this study from 2004, for example, which found no significant differences between the GPAs of both types of perfectionists — except, that is, for this: Healthy perfectionists were more likely to be satisfied with their grades than the unhealthy ones. Similarly, research has also linked the more desirable kind of perfectionism with a term I love, something called “academic joy.” The students who scored high in positive perfectionism in this study were more likely to agree with statements like “Some topics are so enjoyable that I am very motivated to continue studying them” than those who scored higher in negative perfectionism.

Again, this is the distinction: Healthy perfectionism means pursuing excellence, but for your own sake and with a light heart. As it happens, this is essentially the finding of one 2011 paper on the subject.

In it, Joachim Stoeber of the University of Kent asked college students to keep daily diaries for two weeks, scribbling down their days' accomplishments and failures, and how they reacted to each. The positive perfectionists tended to cope better with their daily disappointments, most often by reframing the way they thought about them. (Well, it’ll make a good story someday — that kind of thing.) They also had a sense of humor about their screw-ups. Negative perfectionists, on the other hand, did not look at the bright side and did not find much that was funny about the goals they didn’t hit; they also blamed themselves more than the positive perfectionists.

Overall, the negative perfectionists were less satisfied with their days than the positive ones. But when they were able to joke about their failures or reframe them as things to work on, as Stoeber explained in an email to Science of Us, it helped them feel better about what had happened. The lesson, then, seems to be this: It’s okay to strive for perfection, set high standards, and challenge yourself. But above all, try to lighten up, please.

What kind of perfectionist are you most like?

  1. When I see other people achieve more than me, it makes me feel like an inferior person.

  2. The goals I set for myself are more ambitious than the goals my friends set for themselves.

  3. My friends seem willing to settle for lower standards than the ones I keep for myself.

  4. If I fail at some project at work or school, I feel like a failure as a person.

  5. I sometimes feel like if I could just make fewer mistakes, more people would like me.

  6. If I take on some new task, it’s important to me that I’m going to be very good at it.

  7. If someone is better than me at a certain task, I feel like I’ve failed.

  8. I set very high goals for myself.

  9. If only a piece of a project I’m working on doesn’t work out, the whole thing may as well be a total failure.

  10. I get more done on a daily basis as compared to my friends or colleagues.

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Source: Adapted from The Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, with thanks to Joachim Stoeber of the University of Kent.