Many of us have high and exacting standards and, frankly, others are glad that we do. Would you want a surgeon who is careless? A book editor who isn’t focused on detail? An engineer who is casual when he checks over your holiday Boeing 747? Or would you prefer to have someone with exceptionally high standards, someone a little obsessed by detail? I can imagine whose hands you’d rather be in. But sometimes, having high standards turns into something more problematic, something unhealthy. This article looks at how healthy perfectionism can be distinguished from unhealthy perfectionism. It also asks us to reflect on our own particular experience of perfectionism and consider whether or not it is helping or harming us.
Two Kinds of Perfectionism – Healthy and Unhealthy
The Healthy Perfectionist
The healthy perfectionist is someone who has exceptionally high standards, enjoys meeting these standards, has a balanced view of their performance and does not base their self-worth on attaining a goal. In this sense, perfectionism is really a code for extremely high, exacting but achievable, standards.
The Unhealthy Perfectionist
By contrast, the unhealthy perfectionist strives to meet unrealistically high standards which they set for themselves. They will strive in the face of negative consequences and they are always self-critical regarding their performance. Crucially, they base their self-worth on their achievements and they never feel that what they do is good enough.
Is Perfectionism Helping Or Harming You?
The positive effects of healthy perfectionism are obvious: high standards, good work ethic and excellent goal attainment. By contrast, when our high standards and perfectionist tendencies become a noose around our neck then we have a serious problem. Anxiety, depression and physical exhaustion are bedfellows of the unhealthy perfectionist as they try to attain the unattainable. They suffer because their standards are unreachable and their view of themselves, and their achievements, is inaccurate.
Consider your own situation and which of the following – healthy or unhealthy – most represents your thinking:
a. Do you enjoy meeting a high standard and relish your achievement and are you pleased with yourself when you accomplish something?
b. Do you constantly berate yourself for falling short and are you emotionally and physically affected – negatively – by your ongoing quest to meet your own self-imposed high standards?
Personal Reflection: Some Questions to Ask Yourself.
Here are a few pointers for reflecting on your own perfectionism and deciding how helpful or harmful it is for you. As always, it is extremely useful to write your reflections down.
What drives your perfectionism? Do you just enjoy having a high standard or does perfectionism help keep your self-esteem high and make you feel worthy?
How are you a perfectionist? Is it mainly work/performance based, is it related to personal grooming or health, the home, or another area of your life?
What do others think of you? Do friends and colleagues express constant exasperation and accuse you of being a perfectionist, of being obsessional?
Do you have fun for fun’s sake? Do you recognise that the most successful people know how to ‘play’ – do you balance work and play?
How accurate is your thinking? Do you think in shades of grey or in extremes? Do you see positives in your performance or focus only on the negatives? Do you discount your own achievements – ‘anyone could have done it?’ Do you have double standards – one standard for yourself and a different one for others?
Avoidance and procrastination. Do you get things done or are you holding back as you don’t feel good enough? Are you damaging your productivity and heightening your anxiety by delaying tactics?
View of self. Are you proud of your achievements or are you self-critical, judgmental and lacking in compassion towards yourself? Do you feel you must work harder, longer and better than others? Do you fear failure? Do you link self-worth to your achievements rather than the qualities you offer as a person?
As you reflect, you can see if your perfectionism is helping or harming you. You can consider if your perfectionism is a thing to be applauded, or if it has become unhealthy and damaging. If the latter is the case then it is well worth working on this via self-help strategies or with a therapist. In this way, you can begin to challenge your unhealthy perfectionism and work on reducing your emotional pain. The good news is, you don’t need to lose your own high standards to do this. If you are willing to make some changes, healthy perfectionism is an option for you. Remember, it is entirely possible to have high and exacting standards without damaging and destroying your own life in the process.