In Praise of Healthy Perfectionism

I recently came across a post by a therapist who’s written a book encouraging her readers and patients to kill off their perfectionism. Wait! Please don’t shoot! We might want that perfection!

Thank goodness that the chef cooking our splurge anniversary dinner wants to prepare the best shrimp scampi possible, that the engineering team designing the jet engine for the plane I’ll be flying in a couple of years takes great pride in being exact, and that my daughter’s surgeon was committed to being precise when he performed exploratory surgery on her.

And for some people with more mundane jobs who are experiencing bad times, aiming for perfection in their work may be the only thing in their control and the most satisfying thing in their day.

Perfection can be a win-win approach to some projects.

So before you try to kill it off, let’s talk about how to make it worth keeping around.

Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism

Healthy and Unhealthy Motivations for Perfectionism

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

If you’re motivated to strive for perfection because you want to reach for your own high standards, your perfectionism is likely to be adaptive and healthy, and it usually leads to positive emotional states[i]. Researchers refer to this as “self-oriented” perfectionism. It’s about desire and how you approach projects, not that you necessarily need to achieve perfectionism.

If, on the other hand, you try to be perfect because you’re concerned and worried about what others will say, or out of fear of abandonment or criticism, it will more likely to lead to depression, anxiety and procrastination.[ii] This sort of motivation brings with it dread of mistakes and self-accusations. This type of perfectionism no longer feels desired so much as it feels necessary.

Perfectionistic tendencies have genetic roots

Do you use your perfectionism to achieve something you’re passionate about, or to keep from getting in trouble or getting rejected? If it’s the latter, chances are that your natural, genetic inclination to be precise has been hijacked to try to help you feel more secure. In a defensive, pre-preemptive move, your fears took over your capacity to be meticulous and conscientious, and you no longer make conscious decisions about when to use those skills. Fear is driving, not love.

Seeking perfectionism in all the wrong–and right–places

The plumber that came to my house to fix the sink recently did a perfect job. His work looks good and functions just as it should. But the van he used to get here looks like chaos on wheels. He knows where perfectionism works well and where it doesn’t matter. He chooses when to be precise and when not to bother.

Perfectionism in Music

The result, for both performers and listeners, can be sublime.

When I began my training as a Jungian analyst I stopped performing for a number of years. Once I graduated I began playing again, but not professionally. I joined a rock and soul band–just for the fun of it. In our first gig I missed two, maybe three, notes and I felt horrible. So much for fun.

I thought that it was finally time for me to hang up my horn for good. But no-on else seemed to notice, and in fact they seemed to appreciate my involvement, so I kept on playing in the group. I eventually realized that this group was not a place where I needed, or wanted, to exercise my perfection.

Perfectionism of the sort that I needed to use as a classical musician has far less place in an amateur rock and soul band. In our most recent show I probably missed more notes than I’ve ever missed in any performance, but the rock and the soul were still there, and no-one else seemed to notice. Much more importantly, I’ve learned to enjoy it despite my many imperfections.

Steps toward healthy perfectionism

  • Clarify where your perfectionism belongs and where it doesn’t. Make a list with two columns. Where does it make sense to set your standards high, and where can you afford to loosen up? Awareness is the first step. Then set intentions not to give in to your urges to perfect if it’s just to please others.

So, rather than thinking of perfectionism as something you have to get rid of, think of it as a way of approaching specific projects that can make them satisfying for you, and, perhaps, also beneficial to others. That’s perfected perfectionism.

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[i] Stoeber, J., Otto, Kathleen (2006). “Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence, Challenges.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 10(4): 295–319.

[ii] Yu Xie, Jiyu Yang, and Faxiang Chen, “Procrastination and Multidimensional Perfectionism: A Meta-Analysis of Main, Mediating, and Moderating Effects,” Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal 46, no. 3 (2018).

[iii] Iranzo-Tatay, C., et al. (2015). “Genetic and environmental contributions to perfectionism and its common factors.Psychiatry Research 230(3): 932–939.

Originally published at thehealthycompulsive.com on August 4, 2018.

Psychotherapist, Jungian analyst, and author of "I'm Working On It In Therapy: How To Get The Most Out Of Psychotherapy," & the Healthy Compulsive Project Blog

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