Call someone a “liar,” and it’s clearly an insult. Call someone a “genius,” and it’s almost always praise. But how about calling someone a “perfectionist”?  Is that a diss or a kiss?

The answer, it turns out, depends on what kind of perfectionist the person is. And that depends, in turn, on the person’s motivation.

According to research reported in this Miller-McCune article, perfectionism comes in two varieties: adaptive and maladaptive. And one of the key determinants of the type of perfectionism someone displays is whether the quest for perfection is “motivated from an inner urge or an outside push.”

If you’re driving hard because of your own desire for excellence, that can actually lead to greater satisfaction and psychological health. But if you’re pursuing perfection because of pressure from others — parents, bosses, peers — that’s likely to take you down the path of dissatisfaction and reduced well-being.

“Adaptive perfectionism is an internal standard for achievement,” researcher Robert Hill tells Miller-McCune. “Maladaptive perfectionism is an external concern – wondering what other people are going to think. It’s kind of a thinking habit: ‘I made a mistake there.’ ‘Someone will notice I didn’t do that right.’”

So go ahead and be a perfectionist. Just do it for yourself — and forget what others think.

18 Responses to “Is perfectionism a problem or a plus?”

  1. Finally, someone gets this and took the time to put it in writing! Thank you. I’m a wedding officiant and I tell couples this all the time in regards to them planning the “perfect” day. If you want a perfect wedding day because you need it to have a day upon which you will look back upon and smile for the rest of your life, then have at it.

    If however, it’s to please others or keep up with the Jones, then fuhgeddaboudit!

  2. Kathy says:

    Hi Dan

    I love the distinction you are making here and I’d like to add something to the discussion.

    I find my way around the perfection noise with this:

    I assume we are all perfection in our being.

    Who we are trying to become through our personal growth avenues and our practices is more of our true self, less of the mask and identities we’ve taken on. We learn to take care of our own basic needs like safety, security, belonging (rather than asking others and the world to do this for us).

    Maybe we are returning more than becoming and at the same time, we (as consciousness) are evolving. But I don’t think it’s perfection toward which we are evolving.It’s something more like creativity in action, doing its thing and that can get messy though we can also call it perfect (because it simply is what it is)

    The things we DO from cooking to playing violin are about mastery and so much more. I wonder sometimes, what is perfect. I once played a piece at the piano precisely as I intended, every note, every nuance and when I finished, lingering in that last moment of silence, I cried. It happened once and it was a very sacred moment. It may come again, it may not. Was it mastery? If so, why can’t I immediately repeat it? Was it excellence, yes, but excellence falls short of describing the sublimity of it. I think it was Beauty and surrender. It was co-creating with music from Love. It was, in that moment, according to the impact it had on me, perfect.

    Even when we are driving hard for excellence, what is the motivator? And even when the motivation is “clean” how does it get hijacked by those aspects of ourselves that are still worried about our unmet needs and what others think?

    Nothing conclusive, just some wonderings to share.

  3. Great post! Thanks for making me ponder. I often expect perfection from myself and am a high achiever who likes to challenge herself.

    As a teacher, though, I just want my students to try their best, but I don’t expect them to be perfect. I think they see how much effort I put into making the learning units pertinent and of interest to them, which makes them want to please me. Symbiosis

  4. This is an interesting topic to take on. I feel like being a “perfectionist” is the classic response to unoriginal interviewers who ask prospective employees to name their own biggest faults – it’s the minus that looks like a plus. However, I think “perfectionism” is often maladaptive for other reasons – it is frequently used as an excuse for inaction, when someone tries to “get all their ducks in a row” before undertaking a project, doesn’t start something if they can’t get it just right, or waits for a flash of inspiration before they undertake anything.

  5. Ah! It is AND, not ‘or’ – being a perfectionist and have 2 perfectionist children, it is a “plus” AND a “problem” – while our Drive for perfection is adaptive and internally motivated (vs. external), one needs to learn a balance within oneself between

    1. cutting oneself some slack – being way too hard on oneself when others are so much easier – one expects so much and knows one can do it, with few allowances to be human – while this does allow tremendous creation and innovation, it’s also so much pressure and sometimes learning can be sacrificed in the goal of perfection;

    2. perfect and good enough…the old adage of over-engineering a solution – beyond what the ‘customer’ wants or needs (or can figure out how to use 🙂 ) –

    so as in all things – it’s an AND, vs. ‘either/or’ and it’s a balance – not even balance, but a balance…

  6. I’m less concerned with an individual’s motivation to pursue what they believe is perfection (a standard that often doesn’t exist) and how doing so can affect their colleagues.

    When others interact with perfectionists (regardless of their motivation) it can often feel like out-of-control control and over-exacting standards.

    This can be particularly stifling in the messy process of innovation and trying to invent a future that doesn’t yet exist. Quality control and perfect standards play a role in the product development process, but only after the creative thinking cycle has been completed.

  7. Bill Farren says:

    Currently reading Godin’s Linchpin. His take on it: for many, perfectionism is a procrastination technique used to avoid “shipping” their work, their “art”, losing out to the “resistance” (the fears produced by our reptilian brain).

    “I think the discipline of shipping is essential in the long-term path to becoming indispensable. While some artists manage to work for years or decades to actually ship something important, far more often, we find the dreams of art shattered by the resistance. We give in to the fear and our art ends up lying in a box somewhere, unseen.” Godin p. 103

  8. Great question! In my experience with my clients, perfectionism is almost always a negative force in their lives. People don’t seem to enjoy the pursuit of perfection; rather, it stifles their innate and abundant creativity.

    For me, nothing is ever perfect, and the pursuit of perfection is a fruitless one. The perfection of excellence, yes. Perfection, no.

  9. Interesting post! I agree that the first step to examining perfectionism is definitely to look at whether it’s inwardly or outwardly motivated. However, I believe that even inwardly motivated perfectionism can still be maladaptive because it prevents effective prioritization and focus – if everything must be perfect, it’s hard to commit to some things being more important than others. Also, being overly fixated on goals and results, and avoiding the possibility of error, can take the joy out of the process and really squelch creativity and innovation.

    Rather than taking the everything should be perfect, I believe in focusing on the concept of making things great or amazing instead, and deciding which things are most important to focus on at a given time. Internally motivated high standards are a spur to excellence; internally motivated perfectionism that doesn’t prioritize or accept mistakes can potentially get in the way of both excellence and happiness, in my opinion.

  10. Paul C says:

    I am reminded of the quote, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” ~Harriet Braiker

    Here Braiker infers the external maladaptive perfectionism and not the positively enriching internal, adaptive perfectionism.

  11. Richard Harris says:

    I have been writing and rewriting my response (agonizing is too strong a term, but it’s in the right direction) to this post for the past 20 minutes. Who gets to decide whether my perfectionism is adaptive or maladaptive?

  12. Steve-O says:

    I like to tell myself that I still hold on to a few perfectionist tendencies because I believe in the pursuit of excellence in everything I do. And that’s true. But I also suspect that it’s because I am lazy and really hate having to do something over again. 🙂

  13. Ganesh says:

    Striving for perfection is a path toward excellence. Being a perfectionist is expecting yourself or others to measure up to an absolute standard. This may often be counterproductive, impractical and put off people around you.

    I found a technique that has helped me and others I have coached. It works for people who are aware of their perfectionist tendency either by their own observation of missing out on important goals or by feedback they receive.

    The trick is to look for perfection at a higher level, or a larger goal. If my level of attention in fixing every detail is seen as nitpicking by otherwise sensible people around me, I need to re-examine my thinking. If my ironing out that last tiny issue results in delaying the delivery schedule committed to a customer, it is a case of bad perfectionism. I can change my definition of perfection from product attributes to customer satisfaction–resulting from meeting a commitment with timely delivery of a usable product. A trainer’s definition of perfection can be elevated from quoting every example from the prepared material to ensuring the audience’s feeling of having understood.

  14. Charly says:

    There is one “rule” which comes into my mind regarding this topic: 80 / 20 per cent rule

    Striving for 80% of perfectionism is positive and relates to greater satisfaction, but striving to come up the missing 20% needs 80% additional efforts and is usually not worth spending either power, time or money on it.

    I try to keep this 80 / 20 in my mind, which satisfies me even more than 100 per cent 🙂 as i have 20% more time 🙂

  15. I agree that “driving hard because of your own desire for excellence can actually lead to greater satisfaction and psychological health.” What’s not healthy is being a rear-view mirror perfectionist — i.e. beating oneself up after the fact when nothing can be changed.

    Which leads me to my favorite anecdote about the cellist Pablo Casals, whose attitude toward perfection I try to emulate: During a recording session, Casals was asked by the sound engineer to redo a section where the intonation had been a little off. Casals replied indignantly: “But that’s the way I played it!”

  16. Janet says:

    The quest for excellence is a journey toward a moving goal — for what seems like excellence today may be tomorrow’s status quo. Perfection, on the other hand, is static state. Once reached, then what?

  17. Dan Ward says:

    GK Chesterton famously said “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

    That is, if it’s worth doing, it’s simply worth doing… even if you can’t do it excellently or perfectly.

    So, I unashamedly describe myself as an imperfectionist. I’d rather create things that have flaws than be held back from creating anything because I’m afraid it might not be perfect. (and yeah, I really dig the Cult of Done Manifesto)

  18. Monica says:

    The manifestation of maladaptive perfectionism in students is definitely a problem in education. Some of this comes from parents, and most of it comes from society. We can do our kids a big favor by not worrying so much about grades, and placing more emphasis on giving them more opportunities to find and develop their own natural talents.
    You can’t throw away the basics, but you can raise a literate generation within a context of their own interests in the arts and sciences. Many teachers are already doing this via Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and student-designed Investigative Searches (I-Search). Through these kinds of personalized activities, I’ve learned that a happy student is a successful student!!!

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