The tendency to set unrealistically high standards for performance of oneself and others, along with the inability to accept mistakes or imperfections in matters of personal appearance, care of the home, or work; may be accompanied by an obsession with completeness, purity, or goodness.
Perfectionism is a psychological orientation which, depending on the severity, may have biological and/or environmental causes. To an educated observer, a perfectionist orientation is usually evident by the preschool years, though it may not cause problems until the college years. The perfectionist orientation has two components: impossibly high standards, and the behaviors intended to help achieve the standards and avoid mistakes. The high standards interfere with performance, and perfectionist
Due to obsessive effort and high standards of performance combined with natural gifts, perfectionists may be athletic, musical, academic, or social achievers, but they may equally as often be underachievers. Perfectionists engage in dichotomous thinking, believing that there is only one right outcome and one way to achieve that outcome. Dichotomous thinking causes indecisiveness, since according to the individual's perception a decision, once made, will be either entirely right or entirely wrong. Due to their exacting precision, they take an excessive amount of time to perform tasks. For example, the perfectionist kindergartner may produce two entirely straight lines out of ten attempts, but the emotional fatigue she experiences may hamper her future performance and detract from the value of the effort. Even small tasks become overwhelming, which leads to frustration, procrastination, and further anxiety caused by time constraints.
Perfectionists also pay selective attention to their own achievements, criticizing themselves for mistakes or failures, and downplaying their successes. Overwhelmed by anxiety about their future performance, they are unable to enjoy successes.
Perfectionist anxiety can cause headaches, digestive problems, muscle tension, and heart and vascular problems. Anxiety can also cause "blanking" or temporary memory losses before events such as musical performances or academic exams. Perfectionists also hesitate to try new activities for fear of being a beginner at an activity, even for a short period of time. Negative effects of perfectionism are felt especially when an individual is a perfectionist in all areas of life, rather than in one realm, such as an artistic or scientific pursuit, which might allow room for mistakes in other areas of life.
In extreme forms perfectionism may contribute to depression or be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (which should be distinguished from the more serious obsessive-compulsive disorder). The more common syndromes of anorexia nervosa and bulimia can be considered an extreme form of perfectionism directed towards the body and its appearance. The irrational distortions of perception that can arise from abnormally high standards of "performance" (i.e., thinness) are evident in the anorexic's perception of her or himself as fat.
Perfectionist behavior functions essentially to control events. Conditions that place the child in a position of vulnerability and/or that require the child to take extra responsibility for events can contribute to perfectionism. First-born children, children with excessively critical parents, and children who have lost a parent or sibling all may be predisposed towards perfectionism. It is estimated that 15% of gifted children will struggle with perfectionism at some point in their lives. Although it may not be immediately evident, often there is a sense of vulnerability, inferiority, shame, or guilt behind perfectionist efforts. The perfectionist's continual high achievements and/or control over events do not lead to satisfaction because there is always something to criticize or worry about, or another goal to achieve. Some perfectionists are other-directed and subject others to impossibly high standards of performance and conduct, causing difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Because they cannot accept their own imperfections, they may adopt a falsely exaggerated self-esteem, which hides an intense insecurity. Other perfectionists subject their own emotions to excessive control, and have difficulty becoming intimate. The perfectionist may be afraid of exposing his imperfections to others, which also causes difficulty with intimacy.
Perfectionism is socially encouraged by the modern emphasis on accuracy of information and evidence of success in life. Practices such as assigning percentage grades to school assignments encourage children to aim for "100%" perfect performance without mistakes. It is important to emphasize the process of effort and learning as much as the number of mistakes a child makes in a given homework assignment or creative activity. Indeed, accepting and valuing children's work regardless of mistakes—from making the bed to buttering toast—is a basic function of parenting. To avoid any perfectionist tendencies, children must be given a deep sense of how much they are valued as persons regardless of their performance and behavior. They should also have the belief that failure is a fundamental experience in life, without which one cannot learn and grow.
The first step in moving away from a perfectionist orientation is to identify it and to examine the ways in which it manifests in an individual's life. Because the end results of perfectionist behavior—winning first prize, writing the perfect paper, or being the quietest child—provide so many rewards from teachers, parents, peers, and society in general, the specific ways that perfectionism inhibits the child or teen must be identified. This will probably involve discussion of time spent and of feelings and self-concept involved in the process of achieving some goal. Any judgmental thoughts aimed at self or others should be examined. Positive affirmations should be substituted for judgment, and the child's attention can be directed to other, more subtle, aspects of the experience,
It is important for the perfectionist to set and meet deadlines in order to experience the reward of finishing a task. If procrastination is a special problem, tasks should be broken down into smaller steps or goals to be accomplished, so that the task appears less overwhelming and the feeling of accomplishment can be experienced often as each task is completed. The perfectionist should also be encouraged to take risks simply for the sake of taking risks. A decision to take risks gives the perfectionist permission to be a beginner at a task, and allows him or her to voluntarily relinquish control of a situation. A significant illustration of the value of mistakes and taking risks is the fact that Babe Ruth held the record for the most strikeouts as well as for the most homeruns.
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