The Dark Side of being perfect

In an increasingly competitive world, there are constant demands to improve one’s performance.   In addition to meeting external demands, many people also experience the internal pressure to succeed or perform to a certain level or established standards.   This desire to meet high standards motivates one to achieve goals and perform effectively. However, the healthy pursuit of excellence crosses the line into an unhealthy striving for perfection when

  1. The standards (for yourself and/or others) are “high beyond reach or reason” (Burns, 1980)
  2. One’s self-worth is judged based largely on one’s accomplishment, productivity and ability to achieve such high standards
  3. One continues to strain or strive to meet these internal expectations despite experiencing negative consequences or a lack of satisfaction because one’s performance is not good enough

In clinical perfectionism, functioning at work, home, and in interpersonal relationships can be negatively impacted.  At an individual level, perfectionism have been shown to detrimentally affect one’s physical and psychological well-being.   It has a negative impact on the stress and coping process which in turn affects one’s health behaviours. Perfectionism have been associated with poorer physical health and an increased risk for poor adjustment and disease management of chronic illnesses (Molnar, Sadava, et al., 2012).

Perfectionism has been implicated in the aetiology and maintenance of eating disorders, anxiety disorders and depression with research demonstrating a clear association between perfectionism, psychopathology and negative treatment outcomes (Shafran & Mansell, 2001).  For example, perfectionism is a

  1. Risk factor for developing eating disorders
  2. “destructive” force in depression and strongly associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviours
  3. Robustly associated with anxiety disorders, especially obsessive-compulsive disorders.

The aim of treating clinical perfectionism is not to lower or remove striving for personal standards.  Instead, it is aimed at reducing self-evaluation being exclusively based on meeting personal standards, and the associated self-criticism when the standards are not met (Egan, Wade & Shafran, 2011).  It is only through striving to overcome a difficult situation or experience that helps us to experience success and a feeling of competence. By focusing on being perfect all the time, if humanly possible, we never learn or develop the capacity to trust ourselves.   

Given the dark side of perfectionism, I’m contented with the beauty of just being good enough.  After all, as Winnicott puts it, “good enough” is far better than being perfect or the “best”.

References

Burns, D.D. (1980). The perfectionists’ script for self-defeat. Psychology Today, November, 34–52.

Egan,S. I, Wade, T.D, & Shafran, R. (2011). Perfectionism as a transdiagnostic process: a clinical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 203-212.

Molnar, D. S., Sadava, S. W., Flett, G. L., & Colautti, J. (2012). Perfectionism and health: A mediational analysis of the roles of stress, social support and health-related behaviours. Psychology and Health, 27, 846-864.

Shafran, R., & Mansell, W. (2001). Perfectionism and psychopathology: A review of research and treatment. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 879−906.

Written by:
Velda Chen
Clinical Psychologist
MClinPsych, BA(Hons), Registered Psychologist (Singapore)


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