Perfectionism means to constantly strive to maintain a standard of perfection i.e., absence of any flaws, mistakes, or defects. Labeling someone as a “perfectionist” can often have negative connotations associated with it including other descriptors such as uptight, inflexible, and judgmental. While there may be some accuracy and truth to the negative aspects of perfectionism such as setting unrealistic or unattainable expectations, maintaining a highly self/other critical mentality, and a preoccupation with being judged by others; there are also some positive aspects involved in striving for perfection at times. This is why American and Western societies continue to model and embrace expectations of perfection. Most famous and exceptional achievers, past and present, would likely qualify as perfectionists. In order to achieve greatness and mastery (giftedness and talent aside), there must also be full devotion in striving to be the best at something.
In fact, research has shown that both positive perfectionism and negative perfectionism do exist. Although a central characteristic of perfectionism is an inherent fear of failure fueled by core insecurities of not being good enough, this fear can motivate individuals to strive for and achieve what most others cannot. In other words, perfectionists often spend a great deal of time and energy continuously trying to do better and be better as a way to cope with fundamental feelings of inferiority. This can lead to increased creativity, ambition, and great success or mastery of most things that the perfectionist sets out to accomplish. In addition, self-criticism (i.e., being your own worst critic) has also been linked to improved performance and overall well-being, due to the focus being on the self and the intention of achieving constant self-improvement. On a larger societal scale, these attributes and characteristics allow perfectionists to inspire others to raise their personal standards, to be more creative and innovative in their field of specialty.
Perfectionism starts to be characterized as negative when there is a preoccupation and fear of disappointing others (i.e., not living up to others expectations). This dilemma applies to those perfectionists who are focused on others perceptions or judgments of them, as opposed to their own self-judgment. This preoccupation with others perceptions tends to inhibit and interfere with well-being, self-esteem, performance, achievement, and mastery. When perfectionism isn’t paired with high levels of resilience, skill, and hard-work ethic, it often results in decreased productivity and achievement; in addition to chronic experiences of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, the sacrifices made to strive for constant perfection with an absence of resilience, or the ability to bounce back from challenges, can also lead to increased rates of burnout and relational discord. In addition, these perfectionists can be more susceptible to a variety of stress-related mental and physical health issues.
Thus, we want to hold balanced perspectives regarding perfectionism at large, as there are many valuable personal and societal outcomes that can result from striving to be and do your best. Learning how to embrace positive aspects of perfectionism while actively addressing any negative characteristics, such as increasing resilience and decreasing preoccupation with others perceptions, can still lead to greatness, success, and ideally some balance in life.